Our books

Become a Fan

« Teaching Tips: Fall 2012 Edition | Main | How many philosophers does it take to change a light-bulb? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Mark Alfano

This might be too late, but here's my "ice-breaker," which I've used in a dozen college classes now (and 10 SAT-prep classes while I was in grad school):

Start by asking a random student his/her name, and one factoid (e.g., what's your major, or your neighborhood, or your favorite sports team, or any random fact about you).

Second, ask another student to repeat the first student's responses, and provide his/her own.

Third, ask yet another student to repeat the first and second students' responses, and provide his/her own.

Rinse and repeat until all your students have gone. The later they are in the sequence, the more names/facts they need to remember. They'll be begging to go next by round six. They'll also help each other remember things as the list grows.

At the end, you reel off all the name/facts. You can make this easier for yourself if you happen to have the names in advance, but it should be possible even without that (in a class of 30 or fewer students).

This ice-breaker actually has a lot of benefits, even if it seems kinda silly:

(1) It gets the students to learn each other's names (mostly)
(2) It gets them to laugh and feel engaged
(3) It gets them to feel like allies
(4) It gets them to feel like they can talk to each other and help each other
(5) It gets them to talk in class, at least once
(6) It helps you learn their names

There might be more benefits. Even if it takes a while, it's always seemed worthwhile to me.

Kyle Whyte

Mark: That's an interesting one. I usually do a couple of things. During my courses, I break students up into permanent teams, like 4-5. Their teams are essentially their support network for the whole semester. The teams are also the basis for peer review, some group presentations, and debates, as well as some game theoretic exercises I do as well. On the first day, I create the teams, and make them come up with a code of ethics, including possible penalties, for how the teams will conduct themselves. They then also have to discuss what they think will happen in the course (like what is the content about). Each team presents their code and their views and it is usually a lot of fun given what people come up with. If I wasn't doing the teams, I still think I'd do some kind of ice breaker where I got the students to express what they think the course is about. Then I can play off of the different assumptions and build their curiosity in what is to come and help to give them some framing for how to approach the upcoming readings/assignments.


I think this depends partly on the size of the course. It may be easier (as most things) with smaller groups. One thing that I find helpful is getting the students to talk about their expectations about the course, or maybe about studying philosophy more generally if they're first year undergrads.

With more advanced students you might get some input as to what kind of literature they expect to read during the course, as well as some idea about their background.


Nothing original here, but it seems to work for me.First off, I have smaller sized classes (20-25) mostly gen-ed students and this semester all ethics.

I want the first class to set the tone for the semester which means I want it to be mostly discussion with a few mini-lectures to clarify a handful of key ideas. I also want to gather some information about where students are coming from and their preconceptions. Finally I want to get snapshot assessment of their reasoning skills for comparison with assessments later in the semester. I also want to communicate some sense of what my classes are about and why I think they are important and valuable. Oh, I want to leave the room knowing everyone's name (which I do by getting everyone to talk so I associate names, faces, and contributions to the discussion--much easier than learning names cold).

I don't want to read policies in the syllabus, lecture for more than 10-15 minutes or let class out early. I hate fake icebreakers, though I think I could do a better job of getting to know them in the first class, I think that the idea that we should get to know students independently or prior to doing philosophy with them is backwards (though I might be just wrong about that).

So I usually start with a questionnaire for preconceptions and information while I hand out syllabi etc. Then I give them a case (Trolley problem, lifeboat, or some such thing) to read and space for them to give their initial response and the opportunity to ground their response in reasons (I'm interested for assessment purposes in whether they do this and how they do this). We then usually spend an hour or so discussing the case and adding variations of it to consider. My goal here is for them to see the move from intuition to principle, the role of principles in justification and that ethics involves reasoning and logic and not just guts and family, and the role of imaginative-variation in clarifying moral principles.

Then I might slip into a 10 minute mini-lecture on all of this to make it clear to them. Before transitioning to my sales-pitch on why the course is important and interesting.

Usually by this time the next class is trying to get into the room and so I ask them to look at 3 or 4 things in the syllabus with a promise that they can ask questions in the next class about anything in the syllabus. (I'll start class with a index card and a request for questions about the syllabus--"what three things did you find unclear or surprising in the syllabus?").


One thing I like to do, in classes that are small enough, is to simply ask students some of the questions we will be examining in the class and to let the discussion run from there. They nearly always, with some guidance, articulate some of the issues we'll be talking about, and so this normally turns into a nice organic way to introduce the themes of the class.

David Morrow

My basic recipe for Day 1 is:

1. Make an entrance: Don't walk through the door until the minute class is supposed to start, and then launch straight into (2):

2. Start with an attention-grabbing mini-lecture or activity: Start with something dramatic and exciting that touches on the themes of the course. See my examples below. I spend about half the class period on this.

3. Collect names, email, etc. on index cards: I use the index cards for a roll call before proceeding to (4):

4. Quickly review the syllabus: Highlight just the important parts. Remind them when office hours are (and what they are!), explain key policies, make sure they know how much work I'll expect of them, etc.

I've taken this approach for years now, and it's always worked well for me. Two examples of my mini-lectures/activities:

In a critical thinking class, I welcome them to "intellectual boot camp" and emphasize that I'm going to train them to be better thinkers. This segues into a mini-lecture about how thinking is a skill that can be improved, but improving it requires hard work. I talk about how thinking critically is important for many aspects of their lives, and that it's something they do every day. To emphasize this last point, I do an activity in which they help me decide what movie to see that weekend by giving me reasons for and against various movies.

In my political philosophy class, I do a series of activities emphasizing the different values at stake in collective decision-making. I start with a "lifeboat" scenario in which all 35 of us are on a lifeboat that holds 20 people, and I solicit suggestions for ways to decide who should go overboard. If they're reticent, I start suggesting mechanisms like, "Everyone wearing blue goes overboard because they'll match the water." (Consensus response: Draw straws.) I then ask how *we* should decide what one student should major in. I suggest mechanisms like, "Give her an aptitude test and make her study what she's best at." (Consensus response: Let her decide.) Finally, I pretend the publisher has sent me 10 extra textbooks and ask how they should be distributed. (No consensus yet!)

Marcus Arvan

Thanks, everyone, for such fantastic advice. I took bits and pieces of your suggestions, and had the best first day of classes I've ever had. Here's what I had my classes do:

(1) I had students individually fill out surveys ("agree"/"disagree") on their beliefs about course material heading *into* the course (e.g. free will, justice, happiness, etc.). I intend to hand these back after the final exam so students can see if/how their beliefs have changed as a result of taking the course.

(2) I broke them up into small groups and had them develop and defend a *position* to class on a survey item of their choosing.

(3) I had the rest of the class raise questions/objections about the case each group made.

(4) Finally, after the class discussed each group's answers, I used the discussion as a jumping-off point to give a very brief overview of the philosophical issue in question.

Students responded *really* well, and I thought it gave them a good beginning idea of what philosophers do. After all that, I went over the syllabus and first assignment.

Anyway, thanks again to you all. My first days have always been a drag, and your suggestions really helped me come up with something that worked!

Jenny Szende

I'm a bit late to this discussion, but hopefully this will be helpful anyhow.

For my first Bioethics lecture - which is still 2 weeks away up here in Canada - I have a few activities planned, and the order is still to be determined. My class will meet once a week for 3 hours, so even having a shortened class the first week will leave me enough time to get a discussion going, give a lecture, and go over the syllabus.

I was taught, prior to my first teaching experience, that if your student's don't break the ice properly on the first day, many will never be willing to speak in class. So, I always want to make sure that (1) everyone speaks on the first day but (2) no one is forced to speak when they have nothing to say. So, in the first class I try to either provide them with something to talk about (perhaps distributed material), or ask them to speak about something that they should be comfortable with (e.g. their name, why they are taking this class, whether they've ever taken a philosophy class before, etc.)

This term I will be teaching Bioethics, and want to include a short discussion of the Hippocratic Oath in the first class. I think it achieves a few things. It gives them a chance to do a close reading of an important philosophical text right off the bat. They'll have a chance to read a short text that they think they know, but likely have never read before. And it gives all of us a common basis for a discussion in the first class.

In all likelihood, the order of events will be:
(1) Hippocrates activity
(2) Syllabus
(3) Lecture 1 previewing chapter 1 of the textbook and introducing some preliminary ethical argumentation.

It helps that the Blackboard page - including syllabus, Hippocrates reading, and textbook assignments - will have been visible to those who are registered for over a week. I don't have unrealistic expectations that students will have actually printed out the syllabus or done the reading. I simply think it's acceptable for me to proceed as though they *could* have done these things in order not to waste 3 hours of my limited contact time with them in the first week.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory


Subscribe to the Cocoon