Keyword quiz: an icebreaker method for interdisciplinary teams

By Sebastian Rogga and Anton Parisi

1. Sebastian Rogga (biography)
2. Anton Parisi (biography)

How can members of interdisciplinary teams quickly gain a better understanding of each other’s thematic preferences and skills in a way that is also engaging and fun?

We have developed a “keyword quiz” icebreaker method to facilitate exchange between members of interdisciplinary teams, especially between people who are not complete strangers to each other but are collaborating in a project context for the first time.

In brief, the idea is to communicate each member’s scientific profile based on keywords from publications that the team members have published and that they have selected based on specific categories.

The keywords of a publication are presented visually to the whole group and the team members then guess, in the form of a quiz, which team member published the associated publication.

After the author has been revealed, they share the reasons for choosing the publication. Such storytelling creates a better understanding of the team member’s interests, methodological approaches and publication habits.


  1. First, a “quizmaster” (moderator) is appointed. They email all team members asking them to send (to the moderator only) publications on specific categories in which the team members are lead author or co-author. The categories should be appropriate for the occasion of the meeting, eg.
    • My first scientific publication
    • My most successful publication
    • My worst experience as (co-)author in a publication process
    • My publication that best fits the topic of the project
    • My publication that best represents my methodological skillset
    • My “exotic outlier” paper.
  1. Team members are free to submit one or more publications for each category, or to submit a paper from outside the categories. Early-career researchers will usually have few publications and should be invited to present coursework or theses.
  1. The quizmaster selects a mix of publications (up to 20) and prepares a digital slide show. For each selected publication the keywords are presented, followed by a screenshot of the first page on which the title of the publication and the author(s) are visible. See the examples presented below.
  1. Where a selected work does not have keywords, either the participant or quizmaster identifies some terms or phrases to present as “keywords.”
  1. The quizmaster may include their own publications, but does not participate in the guessing.

The quiz meeting

  1. For face-to-face meetings, a projector and a half-circle of chairs are set up so that all team members have a good view of the image projection and each other. For digital meetings, screen share is used to share the slides along with the comment function of the meeting software.
  1. The quizmaster shows the first slide, which initially only shows the keywords from a publication (see the image below). Meanwhile, the team members give their guesses (the still-secret author of the publication plays along). There are various ways this can be conducted eg., asking team members to write down their guesses and present them when called on by the quizmaster.
Example of a slide containing keywords only (Source: the authors)
  1. The quizmaster then calls on the author. At the same time, the first page of the publication is made visible to everyone (see image below). Then, the author tells the team why they chose the publication and to which category (or categories) the publication fits (eg., “This is my most successful paper because…”). Team members are also invited to ask follow-up questions and thus get to know each other’s work better.
Example of a slide containing an additional screenshot of the first page of the publication (Source: the authors)
  1. After working through all the keywords and publications, the quizmaster can end the icebreaking session or lead an open discussion about main topics, methodological gaps, etc., that exist in the team.

When should the method not be applied?

The method should not be used if the team members have never met or barely know each other. It will also not work if the team members have already co-authored many publications.

The method should not serve as a platform for self-promotion. If there is a danger of “profiling battles,” the categories need to be chosen wisely by the quizmaster.

Ideally the team will be between 4 and 20 people.

Further notes and possible variations

Each round of guessing with a brief presentation and discussion with the author takes about 3-5 minutes for each paper. In total, the whole session should not last longer than 90 minutes.

To stimulate the gamification aspect, the correct guesses of each player can be rewarded with points, so that a “quiz winner” can be named at the end.

The keywords do not all have to be visible immediately, but can also become visible gradually. This stimulates reflection on the appropriate authors.

In principle, other text components of publications are also suitable for the quiz, such as keywords from titles or striking sentences from the publications. Keywords extracted from non-scientific texts are also conceivable and this opens a window for applying the method in transdisciplinary teams that work with non-academics (assuming their work produces text-based artefacts).

Concluding questions

Can you see how a method like this could be helpful in your team? Are there other variations that you would suggest? Are there other useful icebreaker methods that you have used in interdisciplinary or diverse teams?

Biography: Sebastian Rogga MA is a project manager at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Müncheberg, Germany. His interests are in transformative science, team science and science-society interfaces.

Biography: Anton Parisi BS is a research assistant at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Müncheberg, Germany. His interests are in social-ecological systems, reflexive research and sustainable transformation.

9 thoughts on “Keyword quiz: an icebreaker method for interdisciplinary teams”

  1. Thanks very much Sebastian and Anton. This is an excellent icebreaker. I think it could potentially be adapted to a situation where attendees don’t know each other well also. For example, at the start, each attendee might say their name and discipline after which the game would commence. In an interdisciplinary group it might be easy enough to match the paper to the discipline/author.

  2. Thank you very much for this enligthing idea to break the ice and organize academics in an interchange activity.I am an Environmental Educator and I feel I can adapted to my University context . But also when working with classroom teachers . particularly when dealing with Action Research.

  3. Thank you for this great idea Sebastian and Anton. I can definitely see myself applying this ice breaker activity. It is a very nice combination of scientific topics, story telling and games.

    One technical question. What do you mean by “the keywords do not all have to be visible immediately, but can also become visible gradually”? Do you mean gradually revealing keywords for each publication in each round of guessing? What are the advantages of this?

    • Thank you! Glad to have the nice feedback.
      In our execution we tried a few rounds which revealed half of the keywords for more gamification and to fit our group. In those rounds the keywords which were harder to connect to a colleague or which could apply to multiple people were shown first to make it a tiny bit more challenging. For some folks’ papers, listing all keywords at once seemed to make the round a bit easy, and giving the opportunity to rethink guesses (and introduce maybe a little doubt/confusion) worked to keep the activity a little more dynamic.

      • Got you. Playing with the amount of key words to reveal could for sure add more to the gamification. Great idea. Thank you for sharing.

  4. It is good to see effort going into this question of how to understand the disciplinary and cultural differences between multi-disciplinary team members. The approach suggested here may well be effective and a lot of fun to do in an academic setting but would not work in a public/civil service setting in Australia at least. And it would be good to have an approach that did work in this situation as a) there is a lot of multi and trans disciplinary work taking place in government, and b) there is a need to recognise team members’ different types of expertise, which may or may not be expressed in terms of publications (academic, technical or otherwise). In a public service setting the expression of discipline may be more about service provision, policy, strategic research and evaluation, or management sciences for example. As well, we tend to spend a lot less time focussing on this question, even though, it is so significant than this ice breaker proposal requires. Collaboration is mostly defined by urgency and implied egalitarianism of shared task rather than complexity of diverse expertise. Both are equally important and perhaps in both academic and government settings. Maybe there is an opportunity here to bring the best from both worlds: less time consuming and a greater diversity of modes of disciplinary expression perhaps?

    • Yes – there are many contexts in which team member’s expertise might not be expressed in publications. A possible variation of this activity might be to ask each team member to submit “Keywords that represent your expertise in knowledge and skills, specific methods and tools you use”. So there is no paper, but team members own curation of a profile representing them. Play the game the same way of presenting keywords and trying to guess who is being represented.

      One reason for this – especially in transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work – is that often if one is shy or introverted or finds it hard to represent one’s professional capacities, the knowledge and skills one brings can be overlooked. This ice-breaker uses time effectively to get the team connecting with each other (finding similar knowledge and skills) as well as differences that can work well together. Another variation is to then get the team putting together the collective knowledge and skills that the team possesses, and they can better allocate tasks, play to strengths, and notice where there are gaps that need to be addressed. This really smooths over team and project management

    • Great feedback, thank you.

      When we were preparing to submit this write-up here I asked myself similar questions about adopting this activity to transdisciplinary groups. I still don’t have a quick and elegant answer, but I like what Shamini Dias suggested.

      I had also thought that it could make sense to shift to more of a media sharing game – players could send the quizmaster an article, book, paper, etc. that reflects their interest, or that they find relevant to a topic and instead of keywords, the group is shown the title, first sentence, picture, or the like. The obvious drawback is that the professional background and skills aspects might not be addressed. I think there is a benefit though with increasing flexibility, and having such an activity easy to adapt to different contexts (e.g., submit a work which highlights solutions to problem XYZ; …something that identifies an issue we need to address; …a local story/example which you want to share with the group.)


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