The Importance of Icebreakers In Online Classes

by Jessica Mansbach

If you read the Chronicle Of Higher Education or follow coverage about online learning in popular media, a persistent question emerges: How can teachers build community in online courses? These publications frequently cite the importance of creating community in online courses. But, as instructors and designers, how do we do that? How do we create a supportive, friendly, intellectually stimulating learning environment among adult learners who may never see each other in person?

One way to create this sense of community is through the use of icebreakers. Icebreakers are interactive activities that help students and instructors get to know each other. Doing these icebreakers serves multiple purposes. First, they connect students to each other and lay the groundwork for an interactive and collaborative learning experience. When one of the first activities students do is to participate in icebreakers, instructors set the tone for a high level of participation and interaction. Second, regular contact with students, particularly at the start of class, shows that instructors are interested in getting to know their students and are invested in their learning, which can help increase students’ motivation to perform well in class.

To begin to create a sense of community when we teach online, many instructors invite students to introduce themselves on a discussion board. Instructors ask students to share some basic information, such as their work experience and academic experience. Sometimes, students are asked to share a fun fact about themselves. Using discussion boards for introductions is certainly a worthwhile activity that helps students become acquainted with each other and get a glimpse of the variety of experiences they all bring to the class. But there are additional strategies to help students in online classes get to know each other and to involve the students in the course content in an interactive way. Included in this blog post are a few suggestions for building community in online courses through the use of icebreakers.

How To Break The Ice Online

In a webinar on how to enhance student interaction in online classes, Dr. Kimberly Stott, former Executive Director of Faculty Development at University of Maryland University College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, described several icebreakers that can be done in online learning environments, and are appropriate for adult learners. These icebreaker activities, Dr. Stott explained, can achieve one of three specific aims, or a combination of them. Dr. Stott adapted these icebreakers from the book 101 Ways to Make Training Active by Mel Silberman.

As you plan your icebreaker, think about the goal you are trying to achieve. Three common purposes of icebreakers are to encourage teamwork, assess students’ content knowledge, and immediately involve students in learning. Below is a description of an icebreaker that serves each of these purposes, along with an example of how to do each type of icebreaker.

  1. Team-Building Icebreakers: These help students become acquainted with one another and create a spirit of cooperation and interdependence.

Example: Human Scavenger Hunt.   Here are the instructions for the activity.

  1. Tell students to create an initial introductory discussion post in which they tell you and their classmates a bit about themselves (e.g., what they hope to learn in this course and how it might help their career goals, etc)
  2. Tell students to review their classmates’  introductory discussion posts
  3. Tell students to complete the Human Scavenger Hunt Worksheet google doc
  4. Tell students to post the link to the completed Human Scavenger Hunt Worksheet google doc on the discussion board, along with a few thoughts about how they liked the activity and what they learned about their classmates through it.
  1. On-the-Spot Assessment Icebreakers: These help you learn about the knowledge, attitudes, and experiences of students, especially as they relate to the subject matter being covered in the course.

Example: Group resume. Here are the instructions for the activity.

  1. Create groups of between 3 and 6 people. Provide the groups with a link to the Group Resume google doc.
  2. Tell students to use the Group Resume google doc to work together to create a team resume. The resume should include information that highlights the experience and talents of your members.
  3. Tell students to post the link to the Group Resume google doc in the Group Resume discussion forum.
  4. Tell students to review the Group Resumes created by their peers and use the discussion forum to comment on the accomplishments of their peers
  1. Immediate Learning Involvement Icebreakers: These create an initial interest in the course topic and help students form connections to the subject matter out of the gate.

Example: Really Getting Acquainted. Here are the instructions for the activity.

  1. Randomly assign people a partner (or to a group with two other people) in the class, using Canvas’s groups tool. Supply some questions that the partners can use to interview each other.
  2. Ask students to take 30 minutes to get to know their partners. They can do this via Skype, phone, Google Hangout, or if they live close enough, in person.
  3. After the interview, ask the partners to introduce each other to the rest of the class via the Introductions discussion board or in a short video.

In this post, I have just scratched the surface of the many ways to break the ice in online classes. Investing the time in doing these activities with your students early on in the course pays dividends throughout.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources for icebreakers to use in online classes.

Academy of Art University Faculty Development

E-Learning Faculty Modules

Fresno Pacific University Center for Online Learning

Online Teaching Strategies For Adult Learners

University of Central Arkansas’s Center For Teaching Excellence

21st Century Icebreakers: 13 Ways To Get To Know Your Students with Technology


7 responses to “The Importance of Icebreakers In Online Classes


    Looking for suggestions/replys on how to grade the students’ first speech, although it is brief and presented via their video after only 1-3 classes

  2. As a teacher of Speech Comm, I use the Ice Breaker speech as the student’s very first speech. I purposefully assign it for our third class meeting. Before students get to know one another.

    I normally use the format you note, but with some variations:

    I do randomly assign people a partner. Go over some questions that the partners can use to interview each other.
    Give the students time to get to know and interview their assigned partners. I also link about 5 on-line student introductory video speeches for the students to watch and review.  I have them watch and review them and then discuss with the students and inform me of what you felt the student did that was effective, as well as what would have you changed ) . And this is before we discuss what makes a good speech/speaker)
    As part of their readings, I assign them a brief handout: “The Good and Bad Introductory Speech.”
    It provides them with the basics of what is expected in their speeches. I also include some basic TO DOs that include: “Look to and speak clearly to the camera” “Use your notes or cards – but don’t read your speech verbatim”  “Don’t wear a mask, a hat or a hood that may cover your face”  “Don’t have anything – a piece of gum, cough drops, etc. – in your mouth” “It’s alright to smile! In fact, I want you to!”
    The basic principles of a good speech “The Introduction, The Body, The Closing” are presented and reviewed
    Then, partners develop their speeches and introduce each other to the rest of the class via a short video. Insisting that they try to focus on one idea, a theme, as opposed to what I call a dating company’s list of likes “He likes walks on the beach, the color blue, Beatles music, dinning out, a ford Mustang….”
    I do require a minimum of a two minute speech, and to get students thinking about body movement and where to place their hands, I don’t allow props, slides or other items.

    My questions is, becasue it is only the third class and their very fi\rst speech after little reading and videos, other  than  time and includnig an appropriate Int ro Body and Close, what else would  you grade  them on in their video?

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