Icebreakers in Law School: Juvenile or Helpful?

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By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law[1]

While having a discussion the other day with a colleague regarding the value of icebreakers in large, law school classrooms, I started thinking about icebreakers and what message they send to the students.  Does it make law school appear juvenile or does it help create a sense of community.  Or does it depend on how it is done.  Well, I have done some research (very preliminary) and I have asked a handful of students (who randomly stopped by my office or I saw in the hallways—not scientific).  The answer?  It depends on the type of icebreaker and how committed the professor is to forming a community and connecting classroom activities to the overall course.  This latter concern being the most important to the student with whom I spoke.

According to the Center for Teaching Excellence at Lansing Community College, the many benefits of icebreakers are: they reduce anxiety for both the teacher and the students, they foster interactions between teacher and student, they create the expectation that students learn through participation, they actively engage students and teachers, they foster a caring environment, and they foster the formation of a relationship early in the semester.  Of all the articles available on icebreakers and education, one thing is clear—icebreakers help establish a positive environment and help the students get to know each other and the professor.  What is not so clear, however, is the question: are they helpful in a professional school, such as law school?  The answer seems to be when properly executed, icebreakers can be a valuable part of the law school, classroom experience. Further, when properly executed, icebreakers can be used throughout the semester to foster community and trust among the students.  They can also be used to assess student understanding of the material. [2]

Through my discussion with students, it became clear to me that if the class was a required course, they preferred the icebreaker activity to be related to the lesson for the day or to the overall class.  Students with whom I spoke had very little patience for tangentially related “get-to-know-you” type activities in required courses but seem to have slightly more patience for this type of activity in upper-division, elective courses. The “Teaching with Technology” wiki site seems to support this premise with its statement: “If the group is voluntarily present then an ice breaker not necessarily related to the topic at hand has a better chance at success. However, if your group’s presence is a requirement an ice breaker directly related to your topic at hand will have a much better chance at success. In this case, your ice breaker should server as a segue into your presentation.”

It also seems that students recognize the need and usefulness of using icebreakers in a business setting for team building and trust building.  Several students said they enjoy icebreakers in a professional setting as long as they are done professionally and don’t take up too much business time.  Sophia, a popular on-line business training website, confirms what students already know; “in order for an ice breaker to be effective, it must employ content appropriate to the group as well as be appropriately timed.  It should not be too long otherwise it might sabotage the more serious work of the meeting. It should occur at the beginning of the meeting or speech, and then at appropriate times during the program.”

Thus, if icebreakers have the benefits described and students buy into them and see their value if employed correctly, which ones should we use?  The following ideas, I have either personally used successfully or I believe they would work.

  1. Brainstorm: break into groups and give each group a general subject from the reading. Have each student take 2 minutes to write down as many things as he/she can remember from the reading on that subject.  Have the groups make a master list for each group. Then have each group present their list.  Total time: 15 minutes.
  2. Fact or Fiction: prepare 10-15 fact or fiction statements drawn from the readings. Divide students into groups.  Give each group 1 minute to decide whether the statement is fact or fiction and why. I do this closed book when I am teaching holdings, issues, dicta, and the difference. Have the students then report their answers.  Total time 10-15 minutes.
  3. Expectations: Have students jot down what they expect to learn in the class. Collect them and read several of them.  Or have the students read their own out loud to the class.  Or have the students get in groups and discuss among themselves and report out to you.
  4. Just a few words: Ask the students to come up with three to five words which they associate with the topic you are introducing.  Have them write them down and/or share them with the class.  This is a great way to also assess your students and where they are regarding the subject and your class.  With just a few students reporting in, you will get enough information to assess their thought process.
  5. Burning questions: Ask the students to take a moment and think of a question the current case in which you are reviewing did not answer for the student. If you have time, you can also ask the students to jot down why the answer to this question is important to them.  This is also an excellent why to assess the students ability to think deeply about the cases they are reading.  Are they questioning what they read?

 

[1] Sandra Simpson is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Gonzaga University School of Law, and Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing, and the Co-Director of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning

[2] As stated in ABA standard 314: “A law school shall utilize both formative and summative assessments methods in its curriculum to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students.” Interpretation 314-1 states “Formative assessment methods are measurements at different points during a particular course or at different points over the span of a student’s education that provide meaningful feedback to improve student learning. “ Interpretation 314-2 states that schools are not required to use any specific formative assessment method. Thus, it seems clear a professor can use some of these “icebreakers” for the dual purpose of forming a community AND assessing student learning.  Feedback as to student understanding can be given to the students in class.

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