I’ve often found it both fun and useful to give students a problem for which there are no wrong answers. It just lets them wander a bit to explore ideas and see how one concept might lead to another.
This is something I particularly like to do on the opening day of class. An exercise like this can be a fun icebreaker and can set the tone for the rest of a course: this is a class where you need to be creative, explore ideas, share ideas that might be a little silly at times, and engage in group problem solving.
I was once being observed by faculty peers for an annual review when I gave this exercise to students. The two faculty members ended up getting into an in-depth discussion of whether dresses could be modified to remain a feasible apparel choice.
One of my favorite ways to do this comes from A Whack on the Side of the Head, which I pose to students as: Imagine a world in which there is no gravity for one minute each day. What would the room we’re in look like? What would campus and Austin look like? What would humans look like?
Students go in all kinds of directions. Maybe humans would have tails or suction cups on their feet to prevent us from flying off when there is no gravity. Cars would all have to operate with magnets or like rollercoasters with tracks. Rooms might have to be padded. And so on.
(I was once being observed by faculty peers for an annual review when I gave this exercise to students. The two faculty members ended up getting into an in-depth discussion of whether dresses could be modified to remain a feasible apparel choice.)
I wander around the classroom while the students are working in small groups on the question. They often have questions – do we just float during that minute? Or do we start shooting up toward the sky? – questions for which I have no answers. They can interpret the question however they want, which gives them even more room to play with ideas.
One of my favorite moments with this exercise came in a UGS signature course that included mostly undergraduate freshmen in their first semester – and three seniors who were taking the class as part of their requirements to graduate. There was the potential for an unusual dynamic. When the students were sharing ideas, one of the freshmen said “Our team had another idea that was really smart!” She looked expectantly at the senior sitting next to her, who clearly didn’t want to share his idea with the class. She was not deterred. “Well, his idea was that there would be someone kind of like a weatherman, but for this gravity thing. It’d be part of the nightly news: Tomorrow we think the minute of no gravity will be at 10:23. And even if that person isn’t right, the job would still exist – people predicting the weather aren’t always right, either.” The whole class thought this was really clever and accurate. I had been doing this exercise for years and never heard this answer. I complimented both her for sharing and him for clearly being the one who came up with it, even if he didn’t want to share. She was quite proud, but most importantly (to me), I could see the change with that senior. He perked up and over the opening weeks of the semester came out of his shell and engaged. The class ended up being a great community and learning environment, and I attribute a lot of it to that interaction on the first day.
This exercise is always fun and, once they get into it, students invariably enjoy the flexibility of discussing a topic in which there really aren’t any wrong answers. It helps them open up to sharing their ideas in general, which helps with any class.
Associate Professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations
Dr. Mackert’s current research focuses primarily on the strategies that can be used in traditional and new digital media to provide effective health communication to low health literate audiences. Of particular interest are approaches that go beyond “clear and simple” messages which can create increased engagement which will translate to improved health behavior and outcomes over time.
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