I love a good icebreaker. They’re a great, fun way of getting your students talking and feeling at ease with each other.
Icebreakers also often serve as good team-building exercises. People get to know each other by completing the task and finding out a little about their peers in the process. As a teacher, icebreakers also help you to get to know your students.
I personally think it’s easier to run icebreakers in a traditional classroom setting. I’ve been known to get students doing all sorts of activities to help them get to know each other. Activities I love running in a classroom environment include scavenger hunts, people bingo, having students build bridges to support various weights, drawing around each other, writing on each other’s backs. These might all seem odd, but they work. The activities get people talking and networking with each other.
But in an online classroom, it just isn’t the same.
You can’t hand your students packets of straws and sellotape and give them 20 minutes to build a bridge. You also can’t have them move a bottle full of water with no lid on it across a yard without touching the bottle.
So what can you do? Well, the first thing is to not abandon the idea of online icebreakers, as there are plenty that you can still run when your students are learning at a computer screen.
What is an online icebreaker?
Before we go any further, let’s break down this question: What is an online icebreaker?
An online icebreaker is a fun and interactive way to engage your students. The purpose of an icebreaker is to get your students comfortable with one another and set up a framework for group collaboration.
It’s important to note that while some people may refer to these as studio warm-ups, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with studios or art.
Icebreakers can be applied to any sort of classroom activity where you want your students to start interacting and working more collaboratively.
The important thing you need to know about icebreakers is that there isn’t just one type of online icebreaker. And there isn’t a ‘perfect’ icebreaker that will work for every online class and every type of student.
The best icebreakers take into account your students, their comfort level and your unique course material and format. So, what works in a college English class won’t necessarily work in an online high school math class.
Why use online icebreakers?
Studies show that being part of a community, whether you’re physically in one or not, is an important part of making sure students are engaged and feel like they belong.
Students like belonging to communities where they can be who they want to be without outside judgment. This is why online icebreakers can help your students immediately connect with each other, no matter how different their backgrounds are.
An online icebreaker can also help your students to get over any shyness and make it easier for them to talk to others.
With these activities as part of your course and lesson plans, there will be lots more sharing about personal details and more collaboration among students throughout all parts of the lesson and course.
How do I get my students talking?
There are many reasons why online courses struggle to create engaging discussions among students.
One of those reasons is that it’s hard to figure out how to get students talking when they may not even know each other.
To solve that, you need a way to get them talking and communicating early on. An icebreaker during your first lesson or at the beginning of a course is an ideal time to run one.
Ground rules for icebreakers
As with any activity, it’s important to have good ground rules in place when running icebreakers. These rules ensures that students know what is expected of them during the activity.
Examples of ground rules for icebreakers include:
- What gets said in the class stays in the class
- Respect everyone’s opinions and contributions
- Don’t interrupt when someone else is talking
- Active listening
- Ask if you are unsure of what you should be doing
Enforcing these rules gives your students a sense of safety and security with their learning.
Are icebreakers ever not appropriate?
Absolutely. In an online classroom, there are definitely times when icebreakers are not appropriate.
Some examples of when icebreakers are not appropriate are:
- When there is an emergency. If you need to pull your students together quickly to convey important information, then you don’t need additional distractions. Ditch the icebreaker and just concentrate on delivering the important information.
- When you have guest speakers. Guest speakers are there to deliver information in a certain timeframe. They don’t need to know much about your students at all. If they need any information from your students, a good guest speaker will ask as part of their presentation.
- If you have a particularly large class. Holding a MOOC or a class with more than 20 people? You might want to consider skipping the icebreakers, or having them carried out in breakout rooms. 30 seconds per person for an icebreaker might not seem like a lot, but if you have 40 students and only 60 minutes to teach your class, that’s already a third of your teaching time gone.
- If a new person is joining an established class. We’ve all seen those scenes in movies where new students have to stand up and tell a class about themselves. Running an icebreaker for the benefit of 1 student doesn’t benefit them. It singles them out and can create an ‘us and them’ situation as the rest of the class already knows the answers for the questions or exercise you’ll be running.
What to consider when choosing an online icebreaker
Choosing an icebreaker, or icebreakers for your online class can be a fun process. But you should never choose an icebreaker just because you like it. It needs to serve a purpose and be suitable for your students.
Before choosing an icebreaker, you need to consider the following things:
What is the purpose and point of the icebreaker?
As with anything in teaching, an icebreaker needs to have a purpose and point to be included. If you’re just including an icebreaker because it seems like a good idea, you can probably leave it out. Determining the purpose and point of your icebreaker will also help you decide which icebreaker is best for you to include in your online course. For example, is your icebreaker a way for students to introduce themselves? Will they be working collaboratively on a project in the future and need to know how each other works? Determine your purpose and then pick your icebreaker based on this purpose.
Who are your students?
Depending on who you’re students are will depend on what type of icebreaker you run. As I’ve already said, you wouldn’t approach a group of high school students in the same way you’d teach adults. Equally, you won’t approach an hour-long course in the same way as a 10-week course.
Consider who your students are and link this back to the purpose of your icebreaker. What is it that you want your students to achieve whilst taking part in your online icebreaker?
How long do you have?
Typically, icebreakers should last between 5 and 20 minutes. This is enough time for students to get comfortable with each other, without detracting from their main learning activities. Consider your lesson time when choosing an icebreaker. If you only have 60 minutes to teach, a 20-minute icebreaker might not be an ideal activity to choose.
How many times will you run an icebreaker?
Some teachers like to run multiple icebreakers. I’ve seen some courses start out with the entirety of the first teaching session dedicated to icebreakers. I’ve also seen courses where the first few sessions start with a different icebreaker. If you’re running multiple icebreakers, you might want more that have a shorter timeframe. Equally, if you have the luxury of a whole teaching session, you might want to run a longer icebreaker. Consider the purpose of your icebreakers when deciding how many you will use and how many times you will run an icebreaker for your class.
What resources do you and your students need?
The fewer resources that you and your students need, the better. It makes the icebreaker less complicated to run and you need fewer backup options if the activity doesn’t work out.
If you need resources to run your icebreaker, have them planned out in advance of the online class. You want to come across as professional when running your icebreaker and not as if it were an activity that was lobbed together for the sake of it.
What preparation does your icebreaker need?
The more preparation that an icebreaker needs from you or your students means that it becomes more complicated to run.
Even if you’re just asking students to submit a photograph, you’re still relying on students to complete that task. How will you run your icebreaker if some students forget? What will your backup options be?
Where are your students?
Depending on where your students are located will depend on the type of icebreaker you run.
For example, if everyone is learning from home, don’t ask them to access specialist equipment only accessible in a physical classroom.
Equally, think about timezones. If someone is logging on late at night or early morning, they might want to just get on with their learning rather than bother with an icebreaker. Go back to the purpose of your icebreaker and only include it if it brings value to your course and students’ learning experience.
Examples of online icebreakers
Toilet paper exercise
This icebreaker has got to be one of my favourite ones ever.
At the beginning of the session, ask students to go and get enough squares of toilet paper that they think they’ll need for the class.
When everyone has their squares of toilet paper, you go around the class and every student needs to say a fact about themselves per square of toilet paper they have. So, if a student has 4 squares of toilet roll, they need to say 4 facts about themselves.
If anyone chooses a crazy amount of squares (or the whole roll because people do that!!) you could limit them to just 5 facts about themselves.
Two truths and a lie
This is another simple icebreaker that required no set-up. Two truths and a lie requires each student to say three facts about themselves, except one ‘fact’ isn’t a fact at all – it’s a lie. The other students then need to decide which of the ‘facts’ they’ve been told is a lie.
Explain what’s on your t-shirt
I love this icebreaker. It’s simple, effective, and requires no preparation work either from you or from your students.
At the beginning of the online class, you just need to ensure that everyone has their webcam turned on and take 30 seconds to 1 minute to explain what is on their t-shirt.
Some people might not have anything on their t-shirt. In which case you could prompt them to explain why they like the colour or pattern on their shirt.
For others with a slogan, statement, or picture, this icebreaker can be interesting to see how your students explain what they’re wearing!
For this icebreaker, each student needs to states 3 wishes they have around a certain category which is set by you. Category examples include 3 wishes for:
- The course they are completing
- Where they want to be within the next 12 months
- Their bucket list
- Holiday destinations
- A television or book series
Choose your favourite
Pick a category and you’re good to go! Your category could be anything from pizza toppings, holiday destinations, tv programmes – literally anything. You just pick a category and then your students need to choose their favourite thing from that category.
For example, if your category is pizza toppings, each student then has to name their favourite pizza topping.
This is a great, quick activity to get everyone talking and requires no set-up and no prep work.
3 facts about yourself
Similar to ‘Two truths and a lie,’ but there’s no lying involved in this icebreaker.
Students simply need to tell the rest of the online class 3 facts about themselves. These facts can be anything and shouldn’t be intrusive. The idea is to break the ice and get students comfortable with each other, not clam up and be worried about telling their innermost secrets to a bunch of strangers.
Introduce someone else
This is a great activity, which involves each student introducing someone else rather than themselves. It means that students come to the class knowing a little something about someone else.
It is good to have ground rules for this type of exercise. For example, providing 3 questions that the students need to find out about each other. It is best to keep these questions very vague. For example; your favourite tv programme or favourite time of the year. This way no one is feeling pressurised to reveal personal things about themselves to complete strangers.
This exercise does require each student to know at least one person prior to the class starting, so it might not work for every online course.
You could set up a discussion board or community for students to ‘meet’ each other prior to the first online class. You could then randomly assign each student a partner with whom they need to correspond with before the online class so as they can introduce each other for this activity during the online lesson.
Take a picture and explain
Before the lesson or course commences, instruct all of your students to come to the online class with a photograph that they had recently taken. It doesn’t need to be a special photograph or show anyone’s face. You could even set rules such as ‘the last photo you took on your phone’ (assuming it’s appropriate!).
Once everyone has arrived in the online class, they take it in turns to share their image with their peers and give a little explanation about the picture. What is it of? Where did they take it? Why do they or don’t they like this photo?
Try and limit each student to between 30 seconds and 1 minute for their explanations. This will avoid the exercise taking up valuable teaching time. You could set a timer and the student needs to stop when you tell them.
This type of exercise is a great way for students to start seeing each other as individuals who have a life outside of the classroom environment. Students get to know their peers on a deeper level, including their interests and hobbies.
As a teacher, you need to ensure that everyone is comfortable with sharing their screens and pictures online. For example, does every student have the bandwidth to display pictures? Also, does every student have a smartphone with which they can take a picture to share with the class? If not, you need to have a backup option to ensure that students aren’t excluded. It could be that you have them share a favourite image that they found online instead.
Who am I?
This icebreaker is similar to ‘Take a picture and explain,’ but it’s a little more personal
Before the online class, students need to send you a picture of themselves as a baby, or in school. During the icebreaker, you put the pictures on the screen and all of the students need to guess which student is in the photo.
This can be a very fun game to play, but you need to ensure that respect is in place for all students and no one feels isolated or ‘picked on’ because of the photo they submitted for use.
The time machine
If students could travel back in time to one period in history, what would it be and why?
This is a fun question to ask people and to hear their ideas. Just make sure that you don’t allow a student to ramble on with their justification as to the time period they would visit.
Guess where I’m from
Quite simply, students need to guess where their peers are from. This game works best when students don’t know each other, otherwise, the game is pretty easy and a little pointless. This game can be particularly useful if you’re teaching a session about equality, diversity, stereotypes etc.
Take a picture of your feet
Socks and shoes are optional!
At the beginning of the session, have each student send you a picture of their feet (yes, it’s fine for your students to have socks/slippers/shoes on). You then display the pictures to the online class and everyone needs to guess whose feet are whose!
It’s a silly game, but laughter is guaranteed, particularly depending on some students’ choice of socks and slippers!
Icebreakers are a fantastic way to start conversations between your students and start to break down barriers. When run effectively, icebreakers can really help forge strong bonds between students, generate collaborative working, and contribute to strong teamwork.
But remember, when it comes to using icebreakers in your online class, the point is to break down barriers and introduce your students to each other.
Whilst running icebreakers, you have a responsibility to your students to make them feel safe in their online environment. If students start to feel targeted or put on the spot, they’re more likely to disengage with your course.
Therefore, before you put an icebreaker in place, always go back and consider the following main points first:
- What is the purpose and point of the icebreaker?
- Who are your students?
- How long do you have?
- How many times will you run an icebreaker?
- What resources do you and your students need?
- What preparation does your icebreaker need?
- Where are your students?
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