Teaching and Learning - Icebreakers for Online Classes
Icebreakers are brief, interactive classroom activities that can build community and trust as instructors and students get to know each other better. Especially at the start of term, icebreakers can help class members learn each other’s names and start to feel more comfortable actively participating in the class. When students participate and/or speak up in class early in the term (and likewise, at the beginning of class periods), this positively impacts overall participation in discussions and other learning activities.
Icebreakers are even more important in an online class, where students are less likely to initiate casual conversations with their peers. Offering students some structured ways to get to know each other is necessary for building class community. Be transparent with students about the purpose and value of icebreakers so they know why you’re taking class time for this. Also, you may prefer to choose icebreaker questions or topics more closely related to course content, so that the icebreaker is helping students reflect on content as well as build community.
Asynchronous icebreakers: Canvas online discussions
Canvas online discussions offer a good format for students to start getting to know each other. You can ask each student to post their own self-introduction; you can also ask them to reply to one or more of their classmates’ introductory posts. See this tutorial for steps to create a Canvas online discussion.
Note: Even if you plan to hold a synchronous first class via Zoom, you may wish to also include an online discussion as another way for students to engage each other during the first week.
Making it personal
Questions should permit students to share who they are as individuals, without asking them to be overly vulnerable. Some examples:
- Where are you from? What’s something you like about that place?
- What is your major, or what are you interested in studying?
- Favorite hobbies? Favorite ways to spend a free day?
And/or you may wish to ask questions more directly related to the course topic — such as an issue in the field students are interested to learn about, or one way they think they might use knowledge/skills they gain from the course in daily life.
Another way to make the online discussion engaging is to ask each student to choose an image that represents themself in some way and embed that image in their self-introduction post.
Group discussions for larger classes
For a course with higher enrollment, you may wish to create a group discussion, in which students can interact with a smaller set of classmates and not feel overwhelmed by the number of posts to read.
Icebreakers for synchronous Zoom classes
Many icebreakers that an instructor might use for an in-person class can be readily translated to a Zoom meeting with a little creative tweaking. Also, take advantage of distinctive Zoom features to encourage active participation or peer-to-peer exchange! See the following examples for some ideas.
Zoom polling: Big picture glimpse of the class
Create and ask Zoom poll questions that will provide a glimpse of who’s present in the class and some shared commonalities and differences. Especially in a high-enrollment course, this is an efficient way to get all students participating, plus it offers an easy, anonymous way for students to share.
- Create questions with broadly applicable answer options. For example: “Where are you from?” with possible answers: “Milwaukee; another place in Wisconsin; another U.S. state; another part of the world…”
- Alternatively, posing several light-hearted “this or that?” questions (e.g. “Cat or dog?” “Late night or early morning?” etc.) can be a fun, very quick way to structure a polling icebreaker.
Ask students to post in the Zoom chat a one-word answer to a question you’re posing. This lets many students share quite quickly, and if you want students to use the chat feature to ask questions or make comments during class, this is a good way to get them warmed up for that.
- You could use this activity as a brief opening check-in, e.g. “In one word, how is this week going for you?”
- Or you could use it as a warm-up for introducing a new topic, e.g. “What’s one word you associate with [topic]?”
As the chat responses come in, comment on what you’re seeing. And/or you might expand the discussion by inviting students to share what they’re noticing among responses.
Zoom breakouts for more personal connections
Using Zoom breakout rooms gives students opportunity to make more personal connections by engaging each other in “real time” with mics and (if possible) webcams on. This is similar to asking students in an in-person class to talk in pairs or small groups; however, because Zoom breakouts feel more isolated, it’s important for the instructor to structure the activity thoughtfully, give very clear instructions, and keep the breakouts brief (especially when students are new to each other). It’s also helpful to ask students to return to the main room with something specific to share back or turn in.
- Uncommon commonalities (adapted from U Michigan LSA Inclusive Teaching Icebreakers) is one example of an icebreaker that translates well to Zoom breakouts:
Randomly assign students to groups of 3–4 and give them ~3 minutes to get to know each other by trying to find a less common trait or experience they all share in common. Upon return to the main room, each group shares their uncommon commonality either via chat or mic.
- Alternatively, you might prefer to give students a course-related question to discuss, problem to solve, or activity to try. Just be sure the objective is clear, students know how long they’ll spend in breakouts, and what they should be prepared to share upon return.