By Elizabeth Alsop

Because I often teach small, discussion-based classes, it is especially important to me that students get to know each other—and get over the participation “hump”—as soon as possible. I’ve tried various approaches to first-day introductions, from ice-breakers (including some of these), to asking students to “interview” their classmates. One of the exercises I’ve found most successful was inspired by the Six-Word Memoirs project and—surprise!—involves giving students just 6 words to introduce themselves. Not only does this constraint help alleviate the performance anxiety some students may feel speaking in front of an unfamiliar group. It also, in my experience, has a higher likelihood of eliciting funny, honest, unexpected responses—disclosures that help engender a sense of community.

I’ve had particular success using this exercise when I focus the prompt and use it as the first step in a scaffolded assignment. For instance, in an “Introduction to English Studies” course, I asked students to use their six words to tell a story about their educational trajectory: what was it that led them to be English majors? The ideas that surfaced became the basis for “Intellectual Autobiographies” they wrote the following week.

I usually conclude by inviting students to work with one of their newly-introduced peers to generate a list of qualities or actions they think define an effective learning community; they take 90 seconds to generate thoughts. As they share with the group, I jot down ideas on the board and take a picture, so we can revisit our list a few weeks later. How well are we embodying the qualities we identified? What about this list might need changing?

These two reflective activities—asking students to consider their previous intellectual formation, and their expectations for continued learning—help signal on Day 1 that the course aims to facilitate students’ engagement not just with course content, but with their own learning process.

Elizabeth Alsop is the Assistant Director of the TLC and a Mellon Humanities Scholar with the CUNY Humanities Alliance.