Instructional Methods: Better beginnings with training openers

Let’s start with a brief test of memory. I’ll present a list of eleven words, take 1 minute to memorize the list and then, without looking, see how many of the words you can remember. Here’s the list of words:

Sordid
Tender
Listless
Pedestrian
Vital
Quiet
Ashore
Embattled
Instant
Negligible
Worse

Set your clock for 60 seconds and try to rehearse. Then, turn off your computer screen and use paper and pencil to list the words you remember.

If you are like most people, your list included the words “sordid” and “worse,” the first andserialpostiioneffect last words on the list. You can thank the Serial Position Effect for this—the much researched phenomenon that we tend to remember the first (primacy) and last (recency) factors rather than those in the middle. If we were to graph this effect, it might look like the image to the righ—with the likelihood of remembering much higher at the beginning and end of a learning sequence.

 What does this mean for training?

The serial position effect tells us that we need to pay particular attention to how we both begin and end our learning events—knowing that we have the greatest opportunity to create lasting memories early on and at the end of our delivery. We must revisit the traditional “icebreaker” and “closer” activities to make sure we are making the most of primacy and recency in our learning delivery.

Icebreakers are instructional methods that we use to engage learners at the start of a training program. Typically these activities help learners to get to know each other and facilitate the development of trust. Think “Two Truths and Lie” where learners share three pieces of information and try to stump the class with one false fact. There are scores of additional “get to know you” activities like this that are used every day in training and educational settings. Fun, yes, engaging, yes, but memorable from a learning perspective? Probably not. Given the tremendous opportunity of learning primacy, how might we move beyond the icebreaker to better use this valuable time to initiate the learning process? What we need are “training openers” not icebreakers. Training openers are activities that not only help learners get to know each other, but also help them get to know the course content. The simple “Pair Share” where students turn to a neighbor and talk about what they know about a course topic and what they hope to learn, and then expand this discussion to a larger group, not only engages learners with each other but also with the course content.

We need “multi-purpose” training openers that can serve as not only icebreakers but also as an introduction to course content–that engage learners, are memorable, introduce course concepts, and set the stage for the content that follows. What I’d like to do next is to hold a “Training Opener Roundup” where we locate and share activities that might be used early in a training session to not only engage learners with each other, but also with course content.

Please add a comment to this post to discuss training openers and to also share a “multi-purpose” opening activity. Be sure to include detailed instructions for implementing this activity and the corresponding reference and link if available.

Note that we will be discussing training closers or ending activities in the next article in this series, “Instructional Methods: Memorable closing activities.”

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About Kathleen Iverson

Chair Graduate Program in Training & Development Roosevelt University
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42 Responses to Instructional Methods: Better beginnings with training openers

  1. Abra Johnson says:

    I really like two ideas in this post. The first is delineating icebreakers from training openers. I like reconsidering the purpose/function of icebreakers as not merely shallow introductions that are usually detached from the training agenda but as entree to the world of the training.

    I also like the idea of training openers as multi-purpose such that they can serve to alleviate stress or tension from the introduction to thick training work/materials, can introduce trainers and trainees to each other to help facilitate teamwork, and to also be the appetizer to the full menu of the training agenda.

    Moreover, I empathize with the concern around learning primacy and making valuable use of all the limited time of any learning session.

    I like ice breakers as training openers when used for multiple levels of learning, starting with the individual trainee, branching out to partnering then large group sharing, or the reverse of this process or using both.

    One activity I like is a Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT–from “Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers” by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross) called Muddiest/Clearest point. Though often used at the midterm of learning, to assess learning, I like its function at the start of a session. Individually, each person would write down their muddiest point (anything unclear, still confusing, or just not really learned) about their duties and what they know or would like know from the training (this is also a needs assessment). Afterwards, each person would write down their clearest point(s)–anything about which they feel comfortably clear and capable.

    Trainees would then either be paired with a partner or turn to the person next to them and share what they wrote, starting with their clearest points and then discussing their muddiest points. The idea here is that trainees can clearly articulate their strengths and weaknesses, articulate what they would like to know, be introduced to colleagues and possible learn all about their colleagues.

    After the partnering, the class would be asked if they want to share their individual muddiest points or parts of their discussion (especially the muddiest points). The idea is for the trainer to learn more about what the class wants and needs to learn and thus better focus the training. This is also an opportunity for the trainer to share his/her expertise with respect to the demands/desires of trainees.

  2. Carmen A says:

    I really appreciate icebreakers/openers and closers that tie directly into the content. Especially those that encourage you to explore what you might already know about a topic. Otherwise, I do see how some may feel that they are a wasted of time. But content related openers and closers can definitely be anchors that hold the information together in a learners mind.

    The kind of openers that build trust and engagement can also be really good as long as it doesn’t seem forced. Sometimes they are difficult because you do have some people who are shy, private or introverted as another poster had mentioned. Choosing the right opener or icebreaker can be a challenge in this instance. I have been involved in some very awkward and not properly conceived openers that left people confused and disconnected dispite the effort.

  3. Angela S says:

    One particular icebreaker I would use in a training session would be the Beach Ball Toss (http://www.excellerate.co.nz/freeicebreakers.html). In this activity students break into small groups and each group receives a beach ball that has various questions listed on it. Students toss the ball to each other, answering the first questions they see. Questions can be introduction based and/or content based or both. Students continue to toss the ball to each other until everyone has had an opportunity to answer a few questions. This can also be used as a tool to review previous content and introduce new content.

  4. Rosa Aguilar says:

    Thank you for sharing this article! It is refreshing to get ideas on making the best of our primacy and recency learning delivery. I particularly liked Despina’s comment about asking students to discuss a topic of the course while engaging students to interact with one another.

    One example of this is the teaching style of some of my undergraduate philosophy courses. For example, in my Ancient Philosophy class, we were required to write a weekly short paper. We would write whether we agree with the author’s discussion on a particular topic, then and at the beginning of the next class session the professor would begin class by asking a random student a question about their thoughts on the assignment. Other times, we were asked to discuss our assignments in small groups. For this class, students got a chance to meet their classmates and to learn to respect each other’s perspectives. Professors here played a key role in facilitating healthy discussion and clarifying questions. This style of learning delivery challenged students to be prepared and engaged while learning the class material in an interactive way.

  5. Amanda Crowell says:

    I think training openers are absolutely essential. For a trainer, they act as a great way to capture the attention of your learners. They also allow the learners to feel more comfortable and willing to discuss and or participate in the session. I am a huge fan of “ice breakers”. I have done them in almost every college class. It helps me know more about my classmates and even make new friends. I agree that creating the ice breaker to relate to the topic at hand is more effective. This will stimulate the neurons and an individuals working memory to put the pieces together as the lecture goes on, remembering back to the opener activity.
    Say you are giving a lesson on ethics, a multipurpose activity could be for the trainer to write the word ethics on the board and then ask students for words that they think define ethics. The trainer can ask that you turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself and then come up with 2 words you think define ethics. Then the trainer calls on each pair to share their answers. The teacher will write the words on the board. After all the words have been written, as a class the teacher and learners can cluster the words into groups. This is a great way to leader the trainer into his or her lesson and to engage the students.

  6. Since I’m new to training and have little experience as a facilitator, I’ll share my thoughts from a participant’s perspective.

    I happen to be an introvert, and thus I loathe most icebreakers, even as I recognize their value. I generally prefer to ease into new surroundings and get to know new people slowly, particularly in situations where I’m maybe not as well versed in the topic as others in the group, so icebreakers that are more passive appeal to me. Let’s call them ice-melters–where things are written at leisure instead of spoken on the spot, where active participation is open-field rather than ordered.

    There are some obvious downsides to using ice-melters, of course. First of all, a passive, open-field activity is necessarily going to be more time-consuming than one that is ordered, so it isn’t a realistic option in many situations. Also, passivity by its nature means some participants may simply never jump into the fray, thus defeating the point of the exercise in the first place.

    All that being said, does anyone have thoughts on ways to make icebreakers more palatable for us shy folks? Or are icebreakers and introverts simply too dichotomous to be mutually accommodated?

    • Thank you Adam for sharing your take on openers. I love the term ice melters and agree, not everyone likes to open with an active experience. I wonder if smaller groups or just pair might be more comfortable for some students? This could be a really interesting article. . .

  7. Kelly Palumbo says:

    I personally really enjoy ice breakers. During my undergrad years, I used to be a facilitator for woman’s rights and diversity on campus. I found that using ice breakers was a great tool to get strangers to open up and share experiences as well as ideas. I understand the concept that ice breakers are not enough and that training opens should be a part of the ice breakers as well. For me that makes sense. There is only so much that a book can teach someone. The whole point of training openers and training in general is to get concepts to be stored in our long-term memory for the training to be worth while. I personally enjoy learning from others and sharing my opinion on just about anything, therefore ice breakers and training opens are a win for me.

  8. Nena B says:

    I agree that Training Openers are more valuable than ice breakers that are considered a “waste of time.” But icebreakers that get students to break some tension or ease anxiety, foster inititial relationships among students/ participants have their value in just that.

    One opener that I like to use in my classes ( I teach Child Development courses) is something that I found in a book by Elizabeth Jones: Teaching Adults.

    Participant write the name of three children down on a piece of paper and they use one word to describe what they like/ love about each child and one word describing what they dislike about that same child. Then students walk around the room reading each others paper, which is taped or pinned to their shirts. When they come across something they find interesting they ask that person to elaborate about one of the children. As a pair they only discuss one child among each other. Afterwards they find another person and ask that person to share about a child. The original pair will then discuss a child they haven’t talked about. I give about 20-35 minutes for the entire activity. Students find themselves really enjoying this activity, it foster relationships as they share knowledge/ opinions/experiences/ similarities and differences about children and it creates dialogue about children and child development.

    I find openers related to course content allows students to get their head in the game and prepared for the lecture and activities.

  9. Amanda Erlenbush says:

    I never really thought of an “icebreaker” activity as a training method. But the article really opened my eyes about the ability to invite the learner to engage with fellow peers. I was always hesitant about the effectiveness of icebreakers. I really like when the instructor incorporates a question that relates to the topic being discussed, or the “multi purpose” method. This method allows the instructor/trainer to learn more about the competencies of the trainees while those being trained are still gaining confidence in the environment. The “two truths one lie” method seems that it would not necessarily be appropriate in all settings or situations but the “pair share” method may be more universal.

  10. Jocelyn says:

    I think this example drives home an important point. Using a combination of course information to get learners to become familiar with other learners and something significant about the course is a great idea. I like puzzles and I think having an opening exercise that each table or group of people get a set of puzzle pieces that contain let’s say the objectives of the class would both help people learn the objects and have a visual as well as learn about working together to solve the puzzle.

    The table who gets the puzzle together 1st may select some small token maybe learning coins. Where during the training session everyone has opportunities to earn learning coins. They could be redemed at the end of the training session for books on the subject, a special training hour for their employee group, or other items. This would keep them engaged throughout the training and be somewhat competitive to be the “best learner”

  11. Gina Moretti-Wietrecki says:

    One of my favorite things about icebreakers is hearing things (usually funny things) about people you work with/go to school with that you wouldn’t have normally ever known. For example, one of my coworkers whom I work closely with now, shared how he was a radio personality at his college. The interesting thing was that he is not the radio personality “type” – the point being that it was the topic of many of our discussions and laughs which in the end helped us to get to know each other better.

    I completely agree that multi-purpose openers can be more effective but if I am training I would prefer to incorporate both so I can get to know something interesting about the person but then also learn what they would like to learn more about, their reasons behind taking the class, their level of knowledge in the subject area, etc. I agree with others comments on how many professors attempt to do this but then ask unrelated questions and steer off track – I’ve experienced this many times as well.

    A multi-purpose opening activity that worked well, was in a class I took at Roosevelt. We were encouraged to partner up with someone we didn’t know and ask our partners various questions ranging from where you work, what you do, what you already know about the subject, how you think you’ll use the class to help you grow professionally, etc. The questions were interesting and didn’t allow for generic answers. We then decorated our partners nametag with the things they told us about themselves and introduced them to the class. When training a class in the future, I hope to use this method as it allowed me and partner to get to know each other personally, but also helped us to think about what we wanted to get out of the class.

  12. Camille Wilburn says:

    Training openers and “multi purpose opening activity”. Well I have never facilitated a class but I do have a desire to teach ,as one of my short term goals. In my own experience, I have always found it most beneficial when groups engage though open discussion about their current knowledge about the course topic, any fears of the course topic and/or lack of knowledge of the course topic. So, since I find it most beneficial for people to lead in opening activities, I would start by placing people in groups for five minutes. The following would be the format:
    * Each group openly discuss the three above topics about the course for five minutes.
    * The group has to come up with one word to describe their groups overall position about the course.
    * One person from each group will represent the group by sharing that one word with the class.
    After all groups have shared their overall positon, I would compare those with the actual course description and content.
    * The purpose of this exercise would be a few different reasons: 1) it instantly engages the entire class, 2) it would allow for those that have some knowledge can share some of their thoughts with their group, 3) it would also allow for those who have no knowledge to hopefully develop some understanding, from his/her peers, and hopefully remove some of the fear.
    * Once the actual course description and content is defined, hopefully at this point, I would have gained their attention by engaging them and now their desire to learn something more about the topic has increased.
    I am seriously thinking about teaching part time in the near future, preferably online. So, I’m looking for some feedback.

  13. jpearl19 says:

    Ha… okay so now both my “tests” show up… Anyway… I enjoy training ice breakers / openers, but find myself (and coworkers usually) more engaged when the game has a purpose, when it is aligned with our work mission statement or to one of our company goals. In other words, it needs to have value to it. Same applies to a classroom setting. Although I will say I can buy into the first day goal of an ice breaker simply being to get to know each other, it becomes even cooler and resonates more when that seemingly innocent information is gathered actually becomes applicable somewhere else.

    I can see from the comments that most others agree with me insofar as value from ice-breakers. I found a website that has a game tied directly to what we are learning (the big picture) about right now– instructional design: http://www.thiagi.com/pfp/IE4H/november2005.html#StructuredSharing2. This game is a word puzzle wherein teams have to figure out the code to reveal terms used in instructional design. Something else cool about this site is that there is actually a template for creating ice breaking / training games. Perhaps that could be used as a group project in the next TRDV 400 class??

    To make this game a little more personal, you could divide into groups by asking each person to write down their favorite food group. Once this is done, you can have all the “like” groups find each other. BUT, for a twist, instead of having all the “fruits and veg” people on one team and the “milk and dairy” (etc) on the other, you can ask members of each team to find one person representing (aka championing) each food group to come together to form a group. Different twist, why not?
    (FYI, I actually cut and paste this from a word doc this time… I wasn’t taking any chances this time with losing it)!!! LOL

  14. jpearl19 says:

    Test Reply…. just wrote a long one and it vanished!! ACK!

  15. jpearl19 says:

    ACK! I just typed a LONG reply and then it vanished… so here is a TEST reply….

  16. Denise Kozokari says:

    I really enjoyed the “training openers” used in our TRDV400 class.

    (1) We shared answers to questions about why we enrolled in the class, what we hoped to learn, etc. with several students sitting close to us. That helped to introduce me to a few other classmates (not too many at once to avoid cognitive overload).

    (2) Having each student create a name tag to display was very important for me, since I tend to be terrible at remembering names. However, since I can read, I can now call people by their name if I want to strike up a conversation.

    (3) We each introduced ourselves to the class including our major and why we enrolled in the class. This provided an opportunity to see who else in the class maybe the most knowledgeable in case I have questions (since Training is not my major), plus provided the opportunity to se that another student was also an MBA student just like me.

    (4) Finally, I just love the Learning Team concept, providing each student the ability to discuss the information presented in the chapters and learning different perspectives on how different people interpreted some of the information was so valuable in our last class. Also, working in teams is quite common in the workplace. Hence, by working in teams and discussing and collaborating with other students prepares students for what they may encounter in the real world.

    These activities were all relevant to the content of the course, and provided the opportunity to meet and connect with other people with similar interests. Much better than a silly game for an ice-breaker. An ice-breaker is not enough to get students engaged with classmates so that we can a;; get more value from the course.

    Denise Kozokari

    • Camille Wilburn says:

      Denise,
      I think you are very right in your thinking about the importance of learning from your peers. In most current organizations, team work is being emphasized more and more. What better way to gain that knowledge and preparation than in the classroom.

  17. Allison Sullivan says:

    I believe that there is a time and place for icebreakers (day-long training sessions, or where participants need to relieve tension and build rapport) but generally are a waste of time. Training openers, however, seem like a great way to open a training session.

    I like this particular training opener, found here: http://humanresources.about.com/od/icebreakers/a/one-word-icebreaker.htm

    Divide the meeting participants into groups of four or five people by having them number off. (You do this so that your participants get to know fellow attendees. People generally begin a meeting by sitting with the people they already know best, when your goal is normally team building across a group.)

    Tell the newly formed groups that their assignment is to think for a minute and then to share with their group the one word that describes X (examples: organizational culture, customer service, communication, etc). This ice breaker helps the group explore their thoughts on a common issue. This ice breaker is a perfect segue into the topic of the meeting or training class.

    Upon completion of the initial spontaneous discussion, ask the participants to share their one word with the larger group. Ask for a volunteer to start and then, ask each participant to share their one word that described their culture.

    • Camille Wilburn says:

      Allison,
      I was smiling as I was reading your post. I hadn’t read yours until after I posted mine but our thoughts are very similar. I totally agree that this style of open dialogue and ice breaker is a great way to get the class to open up and discover any common ground.

  18. Despina Christopoulos says:

    As a graduate student, i think that the “icebreaker” methods are being utilized more and more than in my undergrad years. I find this to be at times both helpful, as well as a waste of time. I have had professors who ask unrelated questions and steer completely off track for almost an hour. On the other hand, i studied literature as an undergrad and the majority of my courses involved open classroom discussion among students and professors. Generally we did not introduce ourselves, or our personal lives, rather the professor would ask who our favorites writers were, poets, our favorite genre of literature, etc. He would then group us in similar genres, then we would group in favorite authors and finally we would end up as pairs. By the end of the pairing we were asked to describe what we were drawn to by that work, and why we read it (for what purpose). I find that asking students to discuss the topic of the course while engaging them to socialize with others (that they may have never met/seen prior to this course) is the most efficient way to introduce the class to each other as well as, the content of the class.

  19. Asma Ibrahim says:

    I have always been a fan of icebreakers as long as they pertain to what we will be learning. Many times I have seen where the icebreaker is just done to introduce one another. This is fine, but I think it should somehow tie to the topic we will be learning. Let’s engage the learner from the start on what to expect from the course content.

  20. Judge Bailey says:

    Icebreakers are okay, but I am more in favor of “Training openers” where the class can discuss topics presented in class, which will increase the overall understanding of the materials presented. I am convinced openers have a greater benefit related to the subject matter discussed whereas icebreakers are good for starters. They can and should not consume too much class time.

    Andrea touched on this already.I also like the “Pair Share” where pairs (maybe more) of students can discuss the course topic, share their knowledge, and afterwards open the discussion to a larger group. This not only engages learners with each other but also with the course content.

    • Absolutely! Judge any favorite openers from our class that you want to share on the blog?

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Judge,

      I prefer myself. More than an Icebreaker, Openers as I understand it, pertain more to content of the training/lecture.
      Pair and Share is great too. I used it in my class last week and students seemed to enjoy it.

      Nena

  21. Antoinette Nunn says:

    In my opinion, all forms of communication with a new audience require an ice breaker for two main reasons. First, you want to find out exactly how much knowledge the receiver has about the subject. Second, you want to make the receiver comfortable by giving feedback to them on the subject about to be taught or discussed to ease their anxiety of the unknown. In every training session or academic course, I have taken this method has been utilized. Here is an article that I believe is a good read on some common and effective icebreakers. http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_76.htm

  22. Anonymous says:

    Sharon Rice
    I liked the excerise for Instructional Methods: Better beginnings with training openers.

  23. Matt Kochanny says:

    I have always found the primacy and recency effect to be quite interesting. I do agree that traditional “icebreakers” may be fun and engaging for students, but they do not do much in terms of getting the students engaged in the course content. Sort of piggy backing off of what Andrea said, I think assigning students into groups and having them teach back is a great way not only for the students to learn about the course subject, but they also get to know each other better in the process. However, perhaps it doesn’t have to be just a chapter or specific reading assignment on the subject they are to teach back, maybe it can just be a general area of the field of study in which they can use their textbook, own personal experience, as well as outside sources to gather information to present back to the class so that way everyone by the end of the day has a more solid understanding on what the course is all about.

  24. Anonymous says:

    An idea that came to mind was the creation of a word tree or word cloud. Websites like wordle.net allow for these creations. I feel like having the learner create a word cloud individually or in groups would create immediate hands-on involvement. By introducing a topic and then having the learner construct a cloud based upon what they know or think they know about the topic ensures that the opener is directly associated to content. The individual or group could present the word cloud to others and explain why they chose the words they did. This will act as the icebreaker in the scenario. From experience, creating word clouds is interesting and more fun than it sounds. I believe this activity would engage the learner and accomplish the goals of covering content and breaking the ice. Furthermore, this activity could be especially useful when the content involves the use or discussion of technology.

  25. Andrea Bundt says:

    A Training Opener could be the use of a teach-back activity that allows the team members to introduce each other as well. The participants are divided into pairs or small groups and assigned part of a reading assignment. The pairs must create a short “presentation” summary to teach back the reading assignment. The pairs will then introduce themselves and “present” the summary to the rest of the class. This is an activity to learn about each other and discuss the assigned readings. Often textbook are challenging to read and a discussion can help debrief the assigned readings.

  26. Dennis Given says:

    As an instructor with 13 years experience in the college classroom, I am very well aware of this phenomenon. It is difficult to keep students’ attention beetween the beginning and ending of any class. That’s why with the icebreaker activity I brought to last week’s class, I sugggested three ice-breakers: one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end. This is also what I would suggest in response to your blog. The beginning activity asks the participants to list and discuss 10 of their favorite foods. The point is that discussion around something like food allows participants to relax and get to know others in relation to something we all have in common. The next activity asks the participant a hypothetical question: If you could wake up tomorrow and be anyone in the world, who would you want to be? The question is actually intended to be a break between whatever the training was up to that point and what would follow. It does not have to be related to the content of the training at all; in fact, it is better if it doesn’t relate. The point is to give everyone a break. The activity can be serious, but it can also be fun. It depends on the participants’ answers. The final activity would be serious and it would be related to application of the training.

    Dennis Given

    • I like how you pace the activity–very nicely done and an interesting twist on openers and closers. Thanks for sharing this in the blog.

    • Andrea Bundt says:

      Hi Dennis- Those are great ideas and I like the idea of adding them throughout the training. How could you use icebreakers similar to this to address the content as well? It might be an activity that you have used to start off a training? Have you ever done anything like that?

      • Dan Clinton says:

        Dennis-I also like your use of icebreakers. As a learner, I personally don’t feel like I need the course material to be a part of the icebreaker. I do think it’s probably more fluid to include course content, but I enjoy a more casual introduction to a class.

        Having said that, I think a nice way of including the course material would be something similar to what Dr. Iverson had our class do on the first day. My training opener would go as follows:

        Students would be introduced to a course concept such as the whole brain model. Students would then be asked to partner up and discuss whether they feel they are right or left brain learners. In addition to this, students would be asked to talk about their interests. (ex. name your top three bands, movies, sports) Students could then share what they learned about their partner with the class if they wanted to. I think this would be a fun way to get to know a classmate and engage in the course material.

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