Easy Icebreakers for synchronous online class sessions

Building community is essential in online and virtual spaces.

Studies of asynchronous online learning based on the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework have long shown the need for social presence in creating productive learning environments. Yet creating and maintaining social presence does not happen as naturally as it can in our in-person class settings, where opportunities for social interaction occur spontaneously.

COI studies have indicated that healthy social presence – where individuals know and see each other as real people with unique personal characteristics – is possible but often requires intentional actions to build and sustain in online settings.

Given our current situations of ‘masked and distanced’ in-person classes, along with hybrid courses and online synchronous sessions, we may need to do even more to allow our students to make social connections and get know each other.

One idea for online synchronous classes is to use the “edge” times: at the beginning of class, when returning from breaks, or even during breakout discussions, to give students time for social interaction. At first I was worried about wasting class time in doing this, but my student feedback indicated that they valued this time to get to know each other. Developing relationships, especially early on, seemed to lead to more open and productive course discussions and small group activities throughout the course.  

Here are just a few ideas for easy social icebreaker questions to use in live synchronous sessions.

Pandemic-related icebreaker questions

  • Share the best habit you have developed over the last year.
  • What self-care strategy do you most want to adopt? Or have you adopted?
  • What TV show, movie, music have you last binged? 
  • Show me your favorite mask!
  • Where is the next place you want to travel, the next person you want to visit, or the first thing you want to do, once you are able? 
  • Give yourself a silly award or superhero title related to your recent life situations – “Most improved cook” or “Super-mom-student-worker.” 

General icebreaker questions

  • Show us one photo from your phone with a two-sentence story about it.
  • Show a map of the world/country/state (as appropriate) and ask participants to indicate where they are currently located. 
  • Have students use an annotate/drawing feature to show where their preferences lie along a continuum of options: Beach or mountains? Dogs or cats? Would you rather be too hot or too cold? Does pineapple belong on pizza – yes or no?  
  • Use polling questions to get a sense of class characteristics and backgrounds, but feel free to bring in some silly questions like, what is currently on your feet (slippers, shoes, socks, nothing)?
  • What’s your favorite icebreaker?

Content-related icebreaker questions

  • Treasure Hunt – Find something in your immediate physical space that can be used to describe a theory, or is an analogy for an example used in class. 
  • One word – ask participants to share one word about how they are feeling about this class/topic/assignment, etc.
  • Interviews – in pairs or small breakouts, have students interview each other and share their main question about the content, or their shared takeaway. Or, come up with one thing they have in common between them regarding how to apply the material to their lives.

I also received overwhelmingly positive feedback when I gave students 10 minutes in small groups, mid-way through the term, to simply talk with each other about how things are going.

A note about inclusion and equity-minded practices when using ice breakers

  • Be prepared with alternatives and options, This is a good time to use perspective taking to think through your questions and imagine if anyone may feel that they are being asked to disclose something too personal or that the questions would share uncomfortable inequities. It’s good practice to make these questions feel optional (“share to the extent you feel comfortable”) and to provide backup options or easy alternatives from the start.

Given the value of community and social presence in creating productive virtual environments, intentionally creating some space for social interaction may be time well spent. 

Do you have a favorite online icebreaker to share?

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