A Dozen Essential Activities to Include in Any Student Leadership Retreat

Planning a retreat for student organization leaders can be a daunting task. There are workshops to design, food to order, and so many other components needed to make a retreat a high-impact experience.

Fortunately, finding ideas for workshops to include in a retreat can be pretty easy  thanks to the plethora of sample agendas available online. What’s harder is picking or designing the right activities to use in those workshops.

If you’ve already decided the who, what, when, where, and why of your retreat, then the following ideas can help you with the nuts and bolts activity-wise.

Welcoming & Centering

The importance of crafting an intentional opening for the retreat cannot be overstated. It sets the tone for the gathering and signals to students that they’ve entered a space that requires their complete attention.

First and foremost, welcome the students! Just as you deliberately welcome new guests into your home to make them feel comfortable, the club advisor or lead facilitator should take a moment to express how excited they are that everyone is gathered together — whether virtually or in person. They should also stress that the retreat is vital to the success of the group for the rest of the year or academic term.

After the opening remarks, it’s time to get everyone into a “retreat mindset,” the state of mind in which ideas flow more easily because students are unimpeded by distractions of everyday life. To do this, consider leading a centering activity. Psychology researcher Dianna Raab describes the benefits of centering like this:

When we center ourselves, we bring calm to our emotions. We do so by slowing down our breathing so that we ‘feel’ more of what’s going on around us. Becoming centered is a way to find peace within the chaos that might be surrounding us.”

Neil Fiore, a psychologist who specializes in productivity, recommends this one-minute breathing exercise that transitions people from fretting about the past or future to focusing on the present. 

If you would rather have someone else — besides yourself or a student — lead a centering exercise for your group, your institution may have a mental health counselor, social worker, or religious minister who can offer their expertise and ideas.

Intros

Group Agreements

Now that everyone is centered, the group can get to work! 

The first order of business should be to create group agreements as a way to introduce the framework for the retreat. Group agreements are a set of behavioral expectations that are co-created between the facilitator and the participants. 

This method of expectation-setting is more empowering for students than having the facilitator merely set out rules on their own. The linchpin of a successful retreat is a group’s ability to practice behaviors that support productivity, and students will be more likely to abide by group agreements if they’ve helped create them.

There are numerous ways to create group agreements. These resources will hopefully inspire some ideas that’ll work well for your group:

Icebreakers

No retreat would be complete without icebreakers! Although the mention of icebreakers may make some participants groan, there is actually a bit of science behind why these activities are so effective.

Anton Villado, an organizational psychologist, says that the best icebreakers do three things: 

  • They calm participants’ nerves about being in a new situation.
  • They give participants an idea of the facilitator’s leadership style.
  • They jump-starts self-disclosure, the foundation of relationships. Self-disclosure is a fancy way of saying that icebreakers encourage people to talk about themselves.

But a weak icebreaker likely won’t produce these benefits. Jennifer Gonzalez broke down a few reasons why.

For one, the icebreaker might ask students to share information that is too personal too quickly, resulting in students being more closed off later in the retreat. Activities that require more emotional risk should be left for later, when students feel more comfortable sharing increasingly personal aspects of themselves.

Another problem might be that the icebreaker doesn’t facilitate familiarity. If participants don’t learn something about each other — such as names, hobbies, and other interesting facts — then they’ll miss the critical self-disclosure component of a good icebreaker. 

Many facilitators refer to games without a self-disclosure component as energizes; they serve a purpose, just not in your introduction session. (I’ll cover how to design a good energizer — and why — later on in this post.)

Finally, Jennifer says that silly rules that are supposed to make icebreakers fun can take the focus away from learning. Sometimes, we as facilitators get so caught up in designing the activity that we forget the original purpose. Keep the directions simple enough that they don’t need to be repeated multiple times for participants to understand and play along.

Here are some icebreakers that you could use:

Mission, Vision, & Values Review

A retreat is a great time to review the student organization’s mission, vision, and values. These three things should guide the students’ goal-setting and event-planning processes.

One way to immerse students in the organization’s mission, vision, and values is to create a culture deck. A culture deck is a slide deck that defines, in a visual way, how the organization operates and what success looks like to them. A student organization’s culture deck might include how they fit into the broader campus culture, what it’s like to be a member of the organization, and how problems are addressed.

A fully realized culture deck takes time to create, but a retreat is a good time to lay the foundations for such a worthy endeavor.

An in-depth guide to creating a culture deck can be found here.

Team building

As with icebreakers, there is science to back up the benefit of teambuilders.

Team-building activities can be broken down by their benefits into three types:

  • Trust and morale builders
  • Communication and collaboration improvers
  • Creativity and problem-solving enhancers

These activities can fit almost anywhere into your retreat schedule! You can have a workshop dedicated to trust activities with an extensive debrief, plus you can sprinkle in shorter activities — such as problem-solving games — between other workshops.

Here are some sources for teambuilders to inspire your planning:

Goal Setting

Setting goals for the upcoming semester provides students with a way to identify their priorities. Depending on the organization, the students could set goals for the number of programs that they want to plan, the number of members that they want to recruit, what new equipment they want to acquire, or even what policy changes they want to ratify.

The Goals Grid is a planning tool that can be used to classify goals into four categories: Achieve, preserve, avoid, and eliminate. Facilitating this activity is as simple as drawing a matrix on an easel or whiteboard and labeling each of the quadrants with the four categories. Fill in each square by asking students the following questions:

  • What is it we want and don’t have? (Achieve)
  • What is it we have and want to keep? (Preserve)
  • What is it we don’t have and don’t want? (Avoid)
  • What is it we have and don’t want? (Eliminate)

Goals can be broken down even further using a prioritization matrix. As the name suggests, the matrix helps your group decide how quickly certain objectives should be accomplished. In a prioritization matrix, the horizontal axis represents urgency while the vertical axis represents importance. Have students put each goal in a quadrant then assign due dates. 

For both of these activities, write the goals on sticky notes so that they can be moved around if students change their minds about what quadrant a goal belongs in.

Brainstorming

Once students have set their goals, they can get ideas flowing to meet those goals!

Regardless of the brainstorming topic, students need some basic tools to help the session along, including:

For some students, spending time alone or in small breakout groups is ideal for bringing out their creativity. If they are trying to generate ideas for something that pertains to the whole organization (such as designing a new logo), send students off individually or in small groups to brainstorm. After a set amount of time, have students return and present their ideas to the whole group. 

One great presentation method to consider is a gallery walk. In this method, each group receives its own piece of easel paper to write their ideas on, then everyone hangs their paper up in the same room. Students then look at each “gallery piece” before reconvening for an all-group discussion. They may decide to combine several ideas together. Wrap up this process by using dot voting to identify which ideas the group wants to pursue the most.

For projects that make the final cut, the students could create a RACI Matrix to identify everyone’s roles and establish accountability.

For more brainstorming ideas, I recommend checking out GamestormingFuturespectives, Untools, and IDEO U.

Leadership Development

Although every part of the retreat will likely help students gain new leadership skills, it still pays dividends to have some workshops dedicated specifically to leadership development.

Not sure what topics to cover? Dr. Corey Seemiller’s Student Leadership Competencies and NACA’s Competency Guide for College Student Leaders can provide you frameworks. Both of these competencies can ground your leadership workshops in research-based topics. Your institution may already have a learning outcome framework that you can align the activities with.

Personality assessments such as the MBTI, the High 5 Test, DISC, and Enneagram that can help students identify their leadership styles are a good place to start. If you are looking for additional ideas, check out this leadership activities database and list of virtual leadership activities.

Skill Building

Students certainly learn a lot of career-readiness skills “on the job” while leading their organizations, but hosting skill-building workshops during the retreat ensures that they have a foundation to build off of. Ask any first-year experience or orientation office, and they’ll surely vouch for the fact that teaching skills to students early improves retention and development outcomes.

Here are some skills that you can help student leaders improve:

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Similar to leadership development topics, diversity, equity, and inclusion topics should be integrated into all aspects of the retreat, and should have some dedicated workshops. 

Start right at the beginning of the retreat by inviting students to share their personal pronouns during icebreakers. The Social Justice Toolbox, Diversity Toolkit, and Diversity Activities Resource Guide have facilitation directions for several activities related to social identity, power, privilege, and oppression.

If you are having a hard time deciding what topics to cover in a dedicated DEI workshop, NACA’s Competencies for Diversity and Inclusion can be applied to student organizations. You should also check in with your office of diversity programs or multicultural affairs to tap into their expertise.

Breaks & Energizers

It’s easy to forget to build breaks into the schedule. Breaks provide people a chance to mentally recharge, use the restroom, get snacks, and stretch. Research shows that breaks can increase productivity by helping people refocus on workshop goals. 

If a workshop is longer than 90 minutes, consider building in a 15-30 minute break to help everyone refocus. Also, having a break between workshops that cover different topics lets students absorb the ideas of the last workshop before focusing on the next one.

When everyone is physically and mentally back from the break, you could use an energizer to prepare everyone to get back to work. Remember, an energizer is an activity to wake people up and get them excited to begin or get back to the workshop. The booklet 100 Ways to Energise Groups is one great starting point. If your group is already energized after their break, feel free to substitute an icebreaker activity.

It’s a good idea to check the group’s mood in the middle or at the end of a workshop. Running a check-in activity can help facilitators understand if students are having a hard time focusing on the discussion or if they’re confused about the purpose of an activity. 

Quicker than a full-on debrief, a check-in is useful if you just want to quickly gauge how folx are feeling and don’t need to deep-dive into what they learned (yet). Sample activities include having students draw an emoji or write one word to describe their current mood, or placing a sticker dot on a bullseye to represent if they think that the workshop is helping the group meet its goals.

Closing & Debriefing

The closing of the retreat is just as important as the opening. Done right, it provides closure for the experience while motivating students to follow through on the goals they set and maintain the relationships they built.

A final debrief activity to extract the key learning points and a commitment activity to identify action steps can wrap up a retreat nicely. Some closing activity ideas are here and here.

When all is said and done, thank the students for attending the retreat and remind them to fill out a survey to help you improve future retreats. Don’t forget to debrief your own experience as the retreat planner.

It’s a lot of work to put together a transformative retreat experience, but it’s all worth it in the end when the student leaders achieve their organization’s goals and thrive within the campus community.

What are some of your favorite retreat activities? We’d love to know! Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence and @JustinTerlisner.

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Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking, or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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