4 Fleeting Icebreaker Adjectives

Why Icebreaker Adjectives Work  

What four adjectives describe you? How about Cheerful, Creative, Agreeable, Witty. Or, Unpredictable, Curious, Diverse, Equitable. These are some of the hundreds of adjectives I have received from my students this last year to tap into their inner self, increase student-to-student engagement, display student passion at being in college as a working adult, and promote a deeper and richer student identity and pride for that college degree just over the horizon. It may sound corny, but it does all those things.

Asking students to identify themselves or profile themselves in four adjectives is just one part of an online course welcome icebreaker discussion question, part of Week 1 Forum in an eight week online course.

The complete welcome message was the creation of a dozen or so faculty in a faculty development course exploring how to increase student engagement in a college course. These were my colleagues who shared a passion about teaching and wanted to help each student to find that spark that would stimulate their desire to succeed in an online class. Some had a welcome message that asked for the obligatory professional biography, and then added one off-the-wall question, such as what is in your refrigerator, or what is the view outside your window. So, I listened, discussed, and created this icebreaker of a welcome message that was anything except asking for their personal work experience since they left college or high school.

This icebreaker works. The students write an initial 800-900 word forum posting as an initial response to these seemingly silly questions. They share words of wisdom from their mom or dad or a boss or a general whom they have long admired. They share comments on how their feelings of what  drives them to be who they are; an adult working in college while raising a family, being in the military, or nearing retirement. They share insights into why they are in college. They share feelings and humor with each other as many find common ground well beyond sharing the same occupation or past military history.

And, by the time they reach the very last silly question, they have had to read the course syllabus and explain which two learning or course objectives they like most and what they expect to learn from those two objectives. The icebreaker does not ask them to read the syllabus as an obligation of demand, it leads them to it.

The result is a string of dialogue over a gold mine of topics with student going beyond the minimum three postings for the routine introduction forum and exceeding the minimum word length for their initial posting. In fact, in some classes, I do not define a minimum word length, yet the word length remains the same range, 800 to 900, for that initial posting.

The rest of the week is one where the teacher can sit back and have fun reading and probing with a few additional questions. About one out of every 50 students will say they do not know how to describe themselves in four adjectives. My reply is always the same: “Well, call your mom. Ask her to describe you in four adjectives”. So far, everyone who poses that uncertain question simply starts laughing; and they do call their mom.

The entire welcome icebreaker is shown here below. Please use this, modified as you see fit.

Welcome to this course.

Let’s jump into the introduction with both feet to find out who we all are.

The following is what we will discuss in the Week 1 Forum. This is not your ordinary introduction or bio section. No more of that resume list of our great accomplishments. Here we want to find out who we really are inside, not that outward appearance in some uniform of a military person or uniform of a truck driver or that uniform suit of an executive.

Let’s begin this course by sharing with each other something that can be related to this course. From one of your famous or most read or admired authors, what is a quote you might live by or like to tell others? Or, list some significant event that you know about that relates to this course topic. Or, list some other famous quote. Maybe there is a great scientific discovery you admire. Or, describe a great person or hero in your life. My dad is mine: He taught me to reuse scrap wood destined for a trash pile or the fireplace to make a paper weight; I have a lot now.

Next, list what music you listen to; what you watch on film, television, or video, what you read in print or online, and where you go to have fun for travel or recreation.

Also, what is the view outside your window? When you are browsing at the bookstore, which section would you gravitate toward? Is your fridge more likely to be full of food or take-out containers?

And, this is so cool, describe yourself using four adjectives; not three or five; just four.

Now, as we are all adults here, and have looked up to certain people for guidance, name one mentor who made a difference in your life direction.

And, finally, pick only two learning or course objectives from the course syllabus that are the most important to you and why.

By the way, for this virtual sitting around the kitchen table talking to each other, there are no wrong answers.

Wait until you hear my list.

Sign this with your name.

This entire icebreaker that reads like some off the wall spoof actually gets the student to study the syllabus and to choose which two of the eight course or learning objectives mean the most  to them.

Now, what four adjectives describe you? Let me know. I promise I will reply and let you know what my mom thought of me.

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