Arrangement Games

Oh my . . . it’s been a while since I posted anything. I had such good intentions last semester, but never found the time to sit down and write. Over the next little while, I’m going to go back and post about cool things that happened last year, but for now, I thought I’d jump back in by moving forward with some content that is timely for the beginning of a new semester: arrangement games. This isn’t anything particularly new or groundbreaking – people have been doing these things for years – but I thought I’d do a quick round up of some of the ones that I find work particularly well.

Arrangement games fall into the category of “Ice Breakers” – something to get a new group of students interacting with one another in a low-pressure way. In this case, the games get students up out of their seats, to mingle and form groups with other students based on some sort of criteria. I find this particularly important with a discussion or lab class, where students will be asked to do a lot of group work. It’s a nice way for them to interact with a few different people before having to make a decision about who they might want to partner up with for a longer-term assignment. I’ve also found it really useful in my big (125+ student) general education courses, as a way of helping them get to know their classmates, so they can work on homework together, or form study groups, etc. (In these big classes, though, I skip out on the “arrangement part,” and just have them chat with people already seated nearby).

These activities are great for freshmen classes, where the majority of them won’t know anyone else in class. And, while it might seem less important for upper division majors courses where many students have existing relationships (and could easily form groups with people they already know), it’s worth taking the time to integrate students who don’t yet know anyone else (recent transfers, change of major, etc). Plus, for any group of students, I find it tends to both relax and invigorate them, and at the end they’re more engaged for whatever we’re going to do next.

There’s another a really nice side benefit to this, especially for those huge general education courses: I ask them to jot down their answers to the questions on a sheet of paper – one sheet of paper per group – and turn it in at the end of class. Then I can use these responses to check attendance, rather than going through the process of calling out 125 names off of a roster.

There are endless ways to go about doing an arrangement game, but the basic format is as follows:

  • Ask them to arrange themselves into groups (some ideas for this below)
  • Have the group members “interview” one another with a list of questions provided to them
  • At the end, come back together as a group and do some sharing with the whole class. At this point, I usually share my own answers to the interview questions, as a way of helping them get to know me. Then, we go around the room and ask everyone to introduce someone else from their group to the class, or (in a large class) ask for a few people to volunteer their answers.

As for the arrangement activity, here are my favorites:

Hometown. Ask students to get into groups (of whatever number you like – I usually do groups of 3 or 4) based on what they consider their hometown. You can designate one corner of the classroom as the town your school is in, for people who didn’t move away from home to attend college, and the other corner for people who moved from a long distance. Then, they have to introduce themselves to one another and say where they grew up, and eventually they’ll find their way to the correct spot somewhere along the continuum. I’ve had really good success with this one – sometimes, students discover that someone else in the class came from the same place, even if it’s not all that close to campus. (“You’re from Fresno? ME TOO!”). Overall, this is my favorite of the games for forming groups where students will be doing long-term projects together.

Birthday. Ask students to get themselves into a single line, based on the month and day they were born (don’t include the year). Again, they’ll have to chat with one another to figure out who goes where. This is by far the simplest one, and usually takes the least amount of time to accomplish. It doesn’t work in all classrooms, though, depending on the set up of furniture. Ideally, there should be enough room for them to form a single-file line.

Clothing. This one is super fun, especially if you want them to have to think a little bit more to get to the end result. Tell them to arrange themselves into groups based on their clothing. That’s it. Those are the only instructions you give. It’s up to them to decide what that means. Are they grouping themselves by the color they’re wearing? By footwear (boots, sandals, athletic shoes, etc.) By short sleeves or long sleeves, jeans, skirts, etc.? This one is fun to watch, as they work out just what to do. A benefit is that this allows students who already know one another to potentially group themselves together – they just look for some aspect of their clothing that all matches – but it also opens the door for other students to join. “Hey, we’re all wearing jeans – I’m going to come hang out with you!”

Comic Strip. I print out a set of comic strips, and cut each comic into its individual frames. (The ones I’ve linked to below are designed to get students into groups of four, but you could also use comic strips with three frames if you wanted smaller groups). Cut up enough comics so there are the same number of individual frames as there are students. Put all the frames in a “hat,” and have each student randomly select one. Then, let them mingle around until they find the other 3 students with a frame from the same comic. This might not be as easy as it seems at first – I usually have more than one strip from the same comic strip, so even if they find another students with a “Calvin and Hobbes” piece, it might not be from the same “Calvin and Hobbes” strip.

Calvin and Hobbes

Once they’re in groups, you can have them ask one another 3 or 4 “interview” questions. I like to have a mix of school related ones, along with some fun, personal interest type stuff. I usually give them anywhere between 3 and 7 minutes to do this, depending on how many questions I’m asking. I also like there to be a little bit of time afterward for them to connect on a more individual level. The list of potential questions is endless, really, as long as you’re not having them share things that might be uncomfortably personal.

Some of the questions I typically ask include:

  • What is your full name? (I always start with this one, so I have that info to take roll)
  • What name do you like to be called? (Nicknames, people who go by their middle name, etc)
  • What is your major? If undeclared, what are some subjects of interest?
  • (For majors classes) What first got you interested/inspired to major in this subject?
  • What sort of work do you hope to do after you graduate?
  • What are some things you’re hoping to learn in this class this semester?
  • Tell me something fun you did over [the Summer; Winter Break, etc].
  • What song are you really into RIGHT NOW? (I particularly like asking this one, because I can go through later and see if there are any songs I like – it’s a great way of finding out about “new to me” music).
  • What is your favorite film (or film genre, or favorite film you saw this year)?

For a bit more extended version:

  • Collectively, find something that all three group members have in common (they can’t just say that they’re in this class, or attend the same university). Maybe they all come from the same hometown, or they all have dogs, or they like Canadian bacon and pineapple on pizz, whatever. Kind of a little scavenger hunt.
  • Then, they each come up with something totally unique – something about themselves that they think won’t apply to anyone else in the class. For example, I might say that I’ve lived in Scotland (since not that many people living in California have done that)

This makes for a fun classroom share (in a small class), as you can go through the various “unique” statements, and see if they really ARE the only one in the class with that trait.

For a very heavily discussion oriented class, you can target the questions specifically toward fostering good discussions:

“Think about your favorite class ever . . .”

  • What did the teacher do to help create a good learning environment?
  • What did the students do to contribute to this environment?
  • What did the teacher and students NOT do?
  • What is necessary in class for you to feel comfortable sharing with the whole group?

“Think about the CLASS FROM HELL . . .”

  • What did the teacher do to create this situation?
  • What did the students do to contribute to this situation?
  • What did the teacher and students NOT do?

With this exercise, I like to bring them together after they share within their groups, and have them share their responses while I create a brainstormed list on the board for each category. If you think students might be shy about calling out their own ideas, you can always anonymize it somewhat by having them write things down on paper, and then trade around with other students, so they’re calling out someone else’s comments.

That’s all there is to it. A full arrangement game, depending on class size, and how much sharing we do afterward, usually takes somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. That’s a small amount of time to spend on an activity that can potentially increase engagement a lot. Also, with lecture classes, I don’t do this right at the beginning of class. I wait until about half-way through, and it gives them a little break, which helps them wake up and get refocused, after sitting still and listening for a while.

Here are some comic strips that I use for my biology/ecology classes (you might want to find comics that relate to your own field of study):

Dinosaur Comics: Chicken or Egg
Dinosaur Comics: Earth Day
Calvin and Hobbes: Tyrannosaurs
Calvin and Hobbes: Scientific Experiments
Sherman’s Lagoon: Ecosystem Services
Sherman’s Lagoon: Eating Assignment

If you’d like to read about some additional ice breaker ideas, check out this article:

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