Motivating Students with Ensemble Building

Featured Instructors:

AmyRuth McGraw, M.F.A., M.A., lecturer in American Sign Language and theatre arts


Encourage intellectual risk-taking in the classroom through ensemble-building exercises. 


  • Improves student motivation
  • Promotes student participation
  • Encourages intellectual risk-taking


AmyRuth McGraw uses icebreakers to improve student learning and motivation. Ensemble-building exercises encourage a more personal connection to class discussions and course material and help students to take the intellectual risks necessary for deep understanding. 


Ensemble Building: Bonus Videos

In these bonus videos, Professor McGraw describes the ensemble-building games “Yes” and “I am, I like, I do” and how playing each fosters a more effective group dynamic and better intellectual engagement in her students.  



Ensemble Building: Details & Examples

Professor McGraw explains how ensemble-building activities have improved her classes by promoting authentic learning and student participation.  Professor McGraw wants her students to avoid having “Gray members” in the room – that is, people who you know exist, but with whom you have never connected.  Icebreakers and other ensemble-building exercises transform “gray members” into colleagues. 

These activities can:

  • help to set the tone for an active-learning or collaborative course;
  • promote better communication, negotiation, and problem-solving skills;
  • inspire trust, which is especially important for courses that cover difficult or controversial concepts;   
  • facilitate greater collaboration and cooperation throughout the semester;
  • humanize other students, helping to overcome stereotypes and disrupt status hierarchies; and
  • encourage a more positive instructor-student relationship.

Professor McGraw demonstrated three icebreaker games for The Extraordinary Teaching Project, and there are videos for each: 

  • The game “Yes!” is an excellent game for creating trust among other students and for encouraging a good dynamic for group conversation.  Students learn to participate in class while also making space for other class members’ contributions. 
  • The game “I am, I like, I do” helps students to find commonalities that will make them feel less isolated during a class discussion. 
  • The game “Stop!” is a useful game for learning names, and is also a good opportunity for instructors to learn more about the individuals in the class:  Which students feel comfortable taking center stage?  Which students may be less likely to draw attention to themselves even if they have something valuable to add to a conversation?

Ensemble Building: Best Practices

Researchers have found that icebreakers are most effective when they are chosen to fit with the instructor’s teaching style, the abilities and needs of the students, and the specific goals of the class.  If one activity isn’t a good fit; there are a wide variety of other icebreakers to choose from. 

Professor McGraw recommends that instructors carefully think through new icebreaker games to ensure that their descriptions will be clear and that the activity will proceed as intended.  Simply reading directions in advance may not be sufficient; Professor McGraw sometimes even recruits colleagues to test out a new activity before doing it with students. 

Image of students standing in a circle.
The best icebreaker games require nonthreatening interaction and have relatively simple instructions. 

Students are most likely to grow from activities that allow everyone to participate.  For example, when Professor McGraw introduces the game “Stop,” she asks students to “move through space” in whatever way they are most comfortable; asking students specifically to “walk” might not be appropriate for some students.  (It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible.)   

It is helpful to be mindful of cultural and personal perspectives on touching and sharing information. Most activities can be adapted to meet the needs of all students. 

If an icebreaker game isn’t going well, Professor McGraw finds that it works well to stop and re-explain the game, or adjust it as needed. 

Practitioners suggest that icebreakers last long enough for everyone to participate, but it is generally a good idea to stop games if the objective has been achieved or when enthusiasm is starting to wane. 

Students in online or hybrid courses can also learn from icebreakers and other online ensemble building activities.

Students benefit tremendously from a debriefing at the end of an icebreaker game. 

  • Practitioners recommend that instructors first reflect on the activity, then guide students to generalize and make connections, and finally help students to apply this information in some future endeavor. 
  • Instructors can ask questions like “How did the activity make you feel?” or “How does the activity help you to succeed in the course?”  (Answers might include improving communication and problem-solving skills and setting the stage for collaborative, active-learning classwork.)

Ensemble Building: Bibliography & Related Content


Chlup, D. T. & Collins, T. E. (2010) Breaking the Ice: Using Icebreakers and Re-energizers with Adult Learners. Adult Learning, 21(3/4),  34-39. 

Collard, M. (2008) Count Me In: Large Group Activities That Work. Beverly, MA: Project Adventure.   

Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence. (2016) Icebreakers. Cornell University. Retrieved from

Lansing Community College Center for Teaching Excellence. (2016) Icebreaker Activities. Lansing Community College. Retrieved from

Magnan, R. (2005) 147 Practical Tips for Using Icebreakers with College Students. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

McGraw, A. & McGraw, D. J. (2015) Your Classroom, Your Stage. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2015) The First Day of Class: A Once-A-Semester Opportunity. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

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