I bring a box to the first day of class — especially if it’s a course with beginning students. At precisely the time class starts, I walk into the room with my box filled with random, quirky objects. I like to include a small Alf doll, a pad of Post-its, some scissors, perhaps a can of Slim-Fast, a candle, a rock, a comb, and maybe six or seven other objects indiscriminately gathered as I leave for class. As soon as I enter the room, I put the box on the table; take each article out; place it on the table; and finally, when all of them are out, return them to the box. Then I ask the students to take out a piece of paper and write down as many of the items as they can remember.
Interesting things begin to happen here, and I can make some immediate points about classroom expectations. Students sitting in the back of the room have not been able to see the items on the table. The point? Sit as close to the front of the room as possible. Some students have been engaged in conversations and did not see me or the box. The point? Pay attention right from the beginning of the class; professors often offer the most interesting and important information at the beginning and ending of class. Some students come in late. The point? Arrive on time. Some students don’t have anything to write with or on. The point? Come prepared. We discuss all this with humor, but the inferences are clear.
Now that I have everyone’s attention, I repeat the process, slowly taking each item out one by one, placing it on the table, then returning them all to the box and asking students to list as many as they can remember. As expected, everyone lists more the second time around. The obvious advantage of paying attention is illustrated. We notice that the most frequently remembered items are those that came out first and last, so we talk about the advantages of studying in shorter stints rather than in marathon sessions. Before proceeding, they determine how many items are in the box by sharing their lists with each other and pooling the items.
When the exercise is repeated yet again, everyone gets even more of the items. This time we talk about each item as it is taken out and put back. This, too, aids their ability to recall, because using another of the five senses is an important technique for remembering the contents. Through this process we note similarities to learning any kind of content: simple repetition helps; verbalizing material they are trying to master helps; noting the total range of material helps when they are learning it in smaller chunks; talking about it with others helps. All this is, of course, fundamentally obvious, but isn’t the obvious what we often miss?
The assignment for the next class is to find a way to remember all of the box’s contents. Foolish? Unrelated to actual course content? Maybe, maybe not. To many students, the material they are required to learn for basic psychology or biology or history can seem as disconnected and random as the items in the box, and yet they must find ways to place it in a context, make it relevant, and retain it. When they come to the second class, many have somehow managed to remember the 15 or so items. And all have improved their recall from the first class.
We discuss their methods for mastering the contents. Some have grouped them alphabetically; some, by color; some, by use, e.g., grooming items, desk items, toy items; and some have created a narrative. The number of approaches they devise is always astonishing, and they love to share and hear how everyone else has accomplished the task. They capture so much from these discussions that at any point during the semester I can ask, “Anyone still able to list all the items in the box?” and most can. So, yes, this is an excellent first-day-of-class icebreaker: it clearly gives everyone in the room a common focus in a nonthreatening way. Its benefits, however, go way beyond that to real conversations about how to learn in this new, strange academic environment.
Virginia Freed, MEd, MA, is a Professor of English at Bay Path College.
Excerpted from Thinking Outside of the Box, The Teaching Professor, October 2008.