Olga Steinberg, Professor
Natural Sciences Department
One of the courses I teach is an introductory course in Biology, BIO110/Principles of Biology. Introductory courses are notoriously difficult to teach, science introductory courses in particular. Though the introductory course content may seem simplistic and superficial, majority of students enrolled in the introductory science course either have never taken any science course, or took it long time ago. Consequently, the course content is new to them. Lack of basic scientific knowledge in combination with inadequate studying skills makes an introductory science course extremely challenging for the majority of students. Their fear of the course is quite perceptible during the first class meeting. There is usually a complete silence in the class, and reading course syllabus feels like reading a death sentence. I have tried a number of icebreaker approaches before: I played the video of Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he spoke about need for a scientific literacy, initiated conversations with students about importance of scientific literacy, asked about their feelings about subject of science, tried to dispel their fears by pointing out that there something they do know about the subject, and so on. All of these strategies worked to the extent, but I was looking for some better approaches. Naturally, I was very exited when I received the GenEd booklet with a promising title of “Icebreakers for the first day of classes”.
From the list of suggested material, I have chosen “A Classroom Icebreaker With the Lesson that Lasts” by Virginia Freed1. Her icebreaker strategy for the first day of class was to show students a number of random objects, then hide them and ask students to make a list of the objects as they recalled them. Discussion of students’ recollection of the objects was used as an opening for the initial conversation on how to get the most out of every lecture. For example, students were made aware that if they did not pay attention to what was happening in class, they may have missed important points of the lesson, or if a student sat too far back in the classroom, he/she may not be able to observe an important demonstration, or if a student was late to class, he/she may have missed important announcements, and so on. After the conversation, objects were displayed the second time, and students were asked to write the list again. The second viewing consistently resulted in better recollection, which illustrated the need for studying the material more than once. I liked this strategy, as it allowed turning a necessary discussion on class behavior and studying skills into an engaging activity.
I have conducted the described icebreaker exercise during the fall semester, discussed all the points suggested in Ms. Freed’s article, and it worked just as it was described: students got engaged in the discussion, their complaint of not been able to see objects clearly or being too late to have enough viewing time were used to discuss the importance of being attentive in class and coming on time. However, when I thought about this exercise before the beginning of the Spring semester, I realized that it is possible to get more out of it, if it was framed as a scientific experiment. In addition, I knew that conducting any activity only once is not enough to impress its points on students.
Here is what I did this Spring. The first lecture of BIO110 is concentrated on the discussion of the subject of science and the scientific method. While “Scientific Method” sounds grand, it is really a set of logical problem-solving steps that anybody can use and apply. As a reminder, scientific method includes several steps: observation, formulation of a research question on the basis of observation, formulation of a hypothesis, formulation of a prediction, and setting up an experiment. The conclusion is drawn from experimental results, and it either validates or rejects a hypothesis. If the hypothesis is rejected, a new hypothesis is formed. My example of a real time “problem” was to determine how much time a student needed to spend on homework. First, I asked students how many times they think it is sufficient to study the same material to know it well. This was the “observation” step of the scientific method. We chose the number of times that most students agreed upon was sufficient and formulated the research question: will studying the same material this number of times allow a student to recall it well? The hypothesis was that the answer to this question would be positive. Therefore, we were able to postulate that if a student went over the same material this number of times, he/she would have a good recall of material. The experiment should give us evidence either in support of this prediction or to prove it wrong.
I explained to students the experimental set up. Students had one minute to observe random objects, then the objects were removed, and students asked to make a list of items they recalled. I had 15 objects: a clock, a rose, a turtle, a picture, sunglasses, a cup, a box, a screwdriver, a spoon, a knife, a toy dog, a toy duck, a sea shell, a tennis ball, a pen. I also pointed out that this exercise is similar to how the course content looked to them in the beginning, as something unrelated to their previous experience. On average, students were able recall about ten objects after the first viewing. I asked students to write the list again at home from memory, and the next class, once again, to write the list from memory. As expected, the number of objects students were able to recall steadily declined with the passage of time. At this point, many students have admitted that they forgot to write a list at home. The conclusion for poor recall was obvious and students were able to draw it without my prompting: it is impossible to recall lecture content without doing homework. On the second repetition, students paid more attention to the displayed objects, and students sitting in the back came forward to see more clearly. This was my cue to point out that staying in the back of the classroom may prevent a student from getting the full benefit of the lecture presentation. The results of the short-term recall were also better the second time. The experiment is still in progress, but I expect I will be able to convince students that studying is an ongoing process, and that reading a chapter once before the exam is not a good way to gain sufficient knowledge of the course material.
Overall, I consider this icebreaking technique a real gem. Students were engaged in class from the beginning, the engagement content was tied to the class content (scientific method), and it can be carried over for three or more weeks of classes serving as a type of mind refresher and a reminder of an importance of completing one’s homework on the regular basis. In addition, the technique can be adapted to any course with slight modifications depending on course content.
Virginia Freed (2010) A Classroom Icebreaker With the Lesson that Lasts. Faculty Focus. Higher Ed Teaching from Magna Publication. retrieved August 25, 2018 from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/a-classroom-icebreaker-with-a-lesson-that-lasts/