Using Icebreakers for More than Introductions
As an instructor, one of your main tasks at the beginning of the semester is to create a supportive and inclusive class environment in which students feel a sense of community and are willing to engage and participate. To accomplish this, it’s a good idea to use icebreaker activities early in the semester (as early as Day 1) to help students get to know you and each other, and to break down the awkwardness accompanying first introductions.
Using a well-chosen icebreaker can provide other benefits as well. They can help you:
- Get to know your students so you can tailor your assignments and examples to their interests;
- Understand the perspectives and experiences of your students;
- Enhance your presence in your online course and connect with students, even in asynchronous courses;
- Help build a sense of community among your students;
- Take some of the awkwardness out of group work by asking group members to answer icebreaker questions; and
- Learn about what your students already know about your subject matter (and their misconceptions or preconceptions).
How to Use Icebreakers
- If you choose to use icebreakers, start early in the semester—perhaps even on Day 1 of the course. The only exception would be if you assign a group project during the semester; in that situation, you might want to use an icebreaker when you form the groups, to help them get acquainted with each other.
- You can use icebreakers throughout the semester. Use an informal icebreaker at the beginning of every class to build community. You could post one before each class session, or once every week, in the chat in a synchronous class, or in a Discussion in Canvas. See the “socializing” icebreakers listed below for ideas.
- Think about your goals in using an icebreaker. Do you want to
- Help students build a sense of community in a class?
- Learn about students’ existing knowledge in your subject?
- Help group members facilitate their work and understand each other’s strengths?
- Consider how you might connect icebreakers to larger goals of the course. Not all icebreakers need to align with content, but making some sort of overt connection to learning in the course may make the activities more meaningful as well as fun.
Understanding what you want to accomplish in an icebreaker will help you choose one from the lists below.
- In a synchronous online class, you can ask a question and have students share their answers out loud, enter them in the chat tool, or share them in small groups in Zoom breakout rooms. You can also pose an icebreaker question in a Zoom Poll and share the aggregate responses with the class.
- In asynchronous classes, you might have students share answers to an icebreaker question in a Discussion forum, or in small groups which can be especially helpful for building community in courses with few or no opportunities for live interaction.
- You can create a brief video introducing yourself to your students. Invite students to create their own introductory videos to share with the class, or only with you as an assignment. In this case you might invite students to share anything they’d like you to know about them, especially things that might impact their learning in your course.
- After you’ve done an icebreaker, look for opportunities in your course to connect course content with interests or experiences students shared.
Example of Icebreakers
To get acquainted and build community
- What is your favorite: food, pizza topping, movie, music genre, book, current television show, sports to watch, sports to participate in, favorite student organization, favorite quote, author, singer, etc? To learn more, see how Meghan Porter (Chemistry) uses icebreakers like these in her large course.
- Submit a song the instructor can play at the beginning of class (before official start time) and/or create a class playlist.
- What is the strangest food you have ever eaten, or experience you’ve ever had?
- Where would you like to travel after the pandemic?
- If you were in a movie, what role would you want to play?
- What actor would you like to play you in a movie?
- This or that: What is better: ice cream or pizza? Which do you prefer: cats or dogs?
- What did you want to be when you were growing up? What are your current career aspirations?
- If you had no fears, what would you be doing right now?
- Marooned: If you were marooned on a deserted island, what five things would you want to bring with you?
- Two Truths and a Lie: Have students post three statements about themselves—two that are true and one that is a lie. Other students have to identify the lie.
- Would You Rather: Ask a question that poses a difficult choice and have students choose a side. For example, would you rather eat in a great restaurant every night for the rest of your life, or never have to do laundry again?
- If you have students post introductory videos in Canvas, you can ask other students in the class to do a sort of scavenger hunt: Find three other students in this class who have something in common with you, and post the commonalities in the Discussion forum.
To Apply Course Content
- What have you seen in the news that relates to class?
- Share a scene from a movie, television show, or YouTube video that explains or illustrates a course concept. (You can even offer extra credit points for the best examples, and then show them to the class.)
- Create a metaphor to explain a course concept to someone who is not in this class or major.
- For a literature course: In the book we’re reading now, which character would you like to be? Or, What’s your favorite novel, and what is your least favorite novel?
- For a STEM course: Of the researchers we have studied, who would you most want to interview?
To Facilitate or Enhance Teaching (and Learning)
- What is your favorite way to study?
- What do you think will be most challenging for you in this course? What will be easy?
- Group resume: When students are assigned to groups for a project, have them create a group resume that lists all the group members’ majors, other courses they’ve taken that are relevant to the project, other skills they have that might help (e.g., writing, organization, leading meetings, conducting research, etc.), what they hope to learn in the course or how it relates to their career goals, everyone’s contact information, and any other information that would help them succeed on the project.
- Syllabus icebreaker: Have students in small groups identify some questions they have about the course; then have them search in the syllabus for answers to the questions. Or the instructor poses questions about the course, and students in small groups search through the syllabus to find answers.
Additional Ideas for Icebreakers
For additional icebreaker ideas, see these websites:
- Building community in community college classrooms—Inside Higher Education
- 12 Icebreakers for the College Classroom—UCAT, Ohio State University
- Icebreakers for Online Classes—Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo (CA)
- The Importance of Icebreakers in Online Classes—Northwestern University
- Online Icebreaker Ideas—University of Washington Bothell
- Icebreakers: Onsite and Online—Academy of Art University