Icebreakers are short activities, often at the beginning of courses, tutorials, and meetings, that provide an opportunity for students to engage with instructors, TAs, and one another. Icebreakers range from simple questions to course-related prompts and structured activities. In online settings, icebreakers leverage technology to connect all members of an online course across physical distances.
Social Presence and Engagement
Icebreakers can promote social presence in an online course. This is what students experience when they feel connected to their fellow students, their instructors, and their TAs. Students are more motivated to learn and succeed when they feel connected to their online course community (Jaggars & Xu, 2016).
Social presence can be achieved by promoting emotional and cognitive engagement in a course. Icebreakers play a role in facilitating interactions between members in the course and can encourage meaningful engagement with course content.
To learn more about engaging students online, read Fostering Engagement: Facilitating Online Courses in Higher Education. (See part 3c. of units 3-5 to find practical strategies and approaches, featuring University of Waterloo instructors.)
Set the stage for engagement
As the instructor, you have an important role in modelling engagement for your online course. Start by introducing yourself and inviting students to do the same. Post an announcement so that all students can see it or start a discussion board topic for students to respond. Be creative – share a photo, record an audio message, or film a quick video introduction! Include information that you would also like to know about your students to give them an example of what their own introductions should look like.
Think about your goals for the icebreaker
Knowing what you’re trying to achieve will inform what types of activities you will do. Common goals of icebreakers include:
- Helping students feel like they’re part of a community
- Finding out students’ existing knowledge and attitudes about course content
- Facilitating groupwork and uncovering each group member’s strengths
Relate the activity to your course
Use icebreakers as an opportunity to get students thinking about course content and to gauge their expectations for the course.
- Ask questions related to the course content.
- Looking through the course outline, what topic looks the most interesting to you?
- Questions can also be discipline-related.
- Literature: What is your favourite novel/written work?
- Health: What does being healthy mean to you?
- Engineering: What is one thing you use all the time that is designed well and one thing with an inconvenient design that you would change?
- Ask questions that could inform your teaching.
- What can I do to make learning in this course more engaging for you?
- What is your favourite method of studying?
Provide structure and clear expectations for engagement
Give clear instructions so students understand what to do and let them know ahead of time so that they can prepare. For large classes, consider dividing students into groups of 8 to 10 for the activity. You can ask students to lead activities within smaller groups to actively engage them.
Set expectations on how often or how much students should engage with one another (e.g. how many peers should they respond to?). Consider requiring students to engage or many students may not participate.
Keep your icebreakers simple and light-hearted, especially for online courses where students may be hesitant to share personal stories. Short and simple activities are easy to facilitate and engage students.
Asynchronous ways of engaging students are most effective in online courses. In LEARN, consider setting up a discussion board to facilitate simple, asynchronous icebreakers.
- At the start of the course, ask students to introduce themselves and embed an icebreaker activity in their introductions.
- Ask fun questions or prompts you would like to know about your students beyond their academic term and program. Encourage them to share an image with their response.
- How would you describe yourself in 3 words/images? What is your favourite _? If you were a type of _, what would you be? If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Share a photo of your favourite memory related to _.
- In addition to the course-related questions mentioned earlier, you can ask:
- Why did you take this course? What do you hope to learn by the end of this course?
- Encourage students to respond to other posts. Prompt them to reply to a peer with whom they share something in common. Start conversations by asking students to end their post with a question for other people to answer.
- For asynchronous groupwork, consider facilitating a group contract or group resumé activity where students collaboratively fill out a document template about what they can contribute to the project and what their expectations are for one another.
Synchronous icebreaker activities are limited by time constraints. Activities that require each person to respond in real-time are most appropriate for small group settings such as tutorials. Consider giving instructions for your icebreaker in advance if people need time to prepare.
- Ask a short and simple question.
- Would you rather this or that? What are you looking forward to this week?
- If webcams are enabled:
- Try an activity where you give a prompt to find an object nearby (e.g. “find something blue”) and have each participant share what they found.
- If your web conference technology supports custom backgrounds, ask students to turn on their favourite backgrounds.
- For large groups, you can pose a question using polls and share the results with the class. Experiment with the poll feature in your software or try web alternatives like Poll Everywhere.
- Keep in mind that synchronous activities may not be inclusive to all students across time zones.
If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help. View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.
- Fostering Engagement: Facilitating Online Courses in Higher Education
- 65 Icebreaker Questions for Online Meetings
- 200 Icebreaker Questions
- Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance?. Computers & Education, 95, 270-284.
- Results of this study show that students are more likely to achieve higher grades when their learning environment involves social interactions. Students are motivated to perform well in the course if they interact with others in their online course community.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Icebreakers for Online Classes. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.