Make Session Starters Work: On Your Mark...Get Set...Go!

Whether you call them Ice-Breakers, Session Starters or Warm Up Exercises, they are a MUST in every training environment. A great session starter can set the tone and give you the needed information to plug into your learners quickly. They can build interest, help learners buy into the objectives of the training session and set a climate that encourages learning.

Why bother?

There are at least four reasons for using session starters, including:

To welcome the learners and put them at ease. This helps them focus on learning objectives and start them talking.

To get information about the learners. What’s their motivation for attending the session? How much do they already know? What do they want to learn? What’s their background?

To give information to the learners. Establish your credibility, identify ground rules, provide program content and process information, along with a schedule.

To transition to the first learning module. Provide a strongly focused beginning activity that brings learners into the content and requires their attention.

Criteria for selecting session starters…

Before you start searching online, we'd like to share some criteria with you that will make YOUR session starters count!

1.Make it Relevant.

Select or craft a session starter that reinforces or complements the learning points of your session. This shows learners that you are not going to waste their time playing games or conducting activities that are unrelated to their work.

For example, if you are doing a session on Cultural Sensitivity, you could select a warm up exercise on perception. Or if you’re doing a session on Facilitating E- Learning, your session starter could be a simple question like, “What have you seen or heard a trainer do on-line that was really ineffective?”

2.Involve Everyone.

What happens if you use a session starter and some participants don’t participate? It send a message that it’s okay not to! AND it can make the person who doesn’t participate feel unimportant and uninvolved. Select a session starter and facilitate it in a way that involves all learners in the classroom – real or virtual.

3.Keep It Low Risk.

Consider your audience and their comfort level. Remember, what is low risk to one learner may not be low risk to all! For example, asking a group of strangers to cite their “most embarrassing moment” is definitely high risk for many. Remember, your session starter sets the tone for the entire workshop. If you make your learners feel uncomfortable from the start, they will unplug from you immediately.

A few examples…

Here are a few examples of session starters that you can feel free to use, depending on your topic, of course!

What’s In Common?

Put participants into small groups. Instruct them to introduce themselves and discover three things that all of the group members have in common. This is a great way for folks to get to know one another and can be used for workshops on team building, communication, listening skills, utilizing resources or on-boarding.

Introductions Please!

Pair up participants and have them find out three things about their partner. Then have each pair take turns coming up to the front of the room and introducing their partner. This is a great session starter for presentation or briefing skills! It takes the spotlight off the “presenter” because they are speaking about someone else and provides another practice opportunity for building their skills and confidence.

Puzzles & Games.

There are a great deal of session starter books out there with puzzles and games. Some of our favorites are the ones by Newstrom and Scannell in their “Games Trainers Play” series. The cool thing about these is that the exercises are already sorted into topical categories – a real “slam dunk!”

Pick A Word, Make A Sentence.

Make word cards using index cards (see our suggestions below). Put participants into pairs or small groups. Fan out the word cards like a deck of cards with the words face down and have each group select a card. Instruct them to create a sentence using the word selected that reflects their expectations for the day. This can be used as a starter for multiple day sessions or a closing exercise in which they would come up with something they want to remember or learned from the training. Here are some examples of words you use:

  • Aha!
  • Understand
  • Important
  • Creative
  • Fun
  • Flexible
  • Interesting
  • Exciting
  • Perform

And don’t forget to process your session starter to make it effective!

Just because it’s a session starter doesn’t mean the activity shouldn’t be processed well! The most effective session starters follow the five step adult learning process, detailed in our paper An Adult Learning Process for Discovery Learning. You can find it posted in our TMN Group.

The five steps include:

  • 1. Instructor sets up the learning activity
  • 2. Learners participate in the learning activity
  • 3. Learners share and interpret their reactions to the activity
  • 4. Learners identify concepts from their reactions
  • 5. Learners apply concepts to their situation.

Check out the article for more details!

What if you KNOW you have a difficult audience?

Learners can challenge even the most prepared instructor and the best course content! Beginning a workshop well can mean the difference between an effective course and spending the entire class time recovering from a disastrous start!

If you anticipate a difficult start, use tried and true strategies including:

  • Giving participant as many choices a possible, such as where and with whom to sit, making their own name cards, prioritizing content etc.
  • Assigning participants a task to do right away, such as completing a brief inventory to identify relevant content. It demonstrates that the session will not be a waste of time. And, it’s hard for a participant to be resistant when they are actively engaged!
  • Use a content focused starter, such as reviewing course content and prioritizing personal objectives, rather than a social, get-to-know-you one.
  • Acknowledge and build on the experience of the group. You could create a continuum that shows the number of years of experience on the topic and another that shows number of years in the position and ask participants to post colored dots to show where they are. Ask participants to interpret the two continuums. These two prioritizing activities give participants some choices that acknowledge their opinions and demonstrates that the group will have some input in the coursework.

You get the idea!

Remember, session starters set the tone for the learning environment. When you select a good one (low risk, involves everyone, relevant to the training topic) you’re guaranteed to engage your learners from the start. The more engaged your learners are, the better the chance for retention and transfer of knowledge and skills back to the workplace. When this happens, it’s a win for all!

Maria Chilcote & Melissa Smith

The Training Clinic