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Cultivating Joy and Connection in Online Classrooms: Icebreakers and Beyond 

By Divya Chaudhry, Senior Lecturer in Hindi-Urdu, Vanderbilt University

If you have ever found yourself in a new group, you have likely participated in an icebreaker activity. Participation in the aforementioned activity may have been enjoyable, but it also may have been an unpleasant experience or even left you scarred. In this post, I describe how to use icebreakers to foster joy, presence, and connection during the first week of classes and beyond. The games presented in this post are based on my experience teaching online and in hybrid formats in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. 

What are Icebreakers? 

Icebreakers are low-stakes activities or fun games designed to initiate conversation among potential strangers and help them get acquainted with each other.  They have many instructional benefits: 

  • They foster community building and cultivate social presence by allowing learners to get to know one another in non-threatening ways and build rapport. 
  • When incorporated intentionally in a class meeting during the semester (not only at its beginning), icebreakers can serve as brain breaks and  lower learners’ stress levels while boosting their attention, memory, and motivation , resulting in an optimal learning environment. 
  • Sharing aspects of oneself that go beyond teacher-student roles humanizes the instructor and personalizes the virtual space. 

A Word of Caution 

While well designed icebreakers can help establish an environment of camaraderie, lightheartedness, and mutual safety that the group can draw upon as it engages further, poorly planned icebreakers can cause learners to experience feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, disempowerment,  and shame, and have the opposite effect than intended.

It is crucial to recognize that not all learners will enjoy participating in these games and/or be comfortable sharing personal information with a group of strangers. To address this fact, 

  • acknowledge the difficulty of revealing our personal selves and give students the freedom to choose how much and what sort of information they want to share
  • choose icebreaker games that emphasize listening, presence, and collaboration rather than sharing of personal information. Check out Three Things , Categories, and Improv-based Storytelling below for examples. 
  • When inviting learners’ perspectives, shift the limelight away from any individual learner by making it possible for them to respond in a group. See Turn Your Video On and Icebreaker Questions below on how to accomplish that.

Example Icebreaker Games

The icebreaker games presented in this post are credited to the Facebook group Pandemic Pedagogy and a New Delhi-based performance arts and production company, Kaivalya Plays. As the name suggests, Pandemic Pedagogy was created in March 2020 as US schools began to shift to remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The group, open to educators and students around the world, offered a shared space for collectively navigating teaching during the pandemic. 

Kaivalya Plays introduced me to the vast potential of improvisational theater (improv) for mental well-being. Improv is a form of theater where participants create a story spontaneously from nothing. A principle central to the form is ‘yes…and’ where one accepts their co-actor’s suggestion without question and expands on it. In the context of the classroom, this would take the form of a student making a suggestion in the game and another student building upon it. The focus is not on being correct or funny, but listening to one’s peers and responding to them in the moment. Because they embrace uncertainty, promote listening and collaboration, and welcome mistakes, improv games serve as excellent icebreakers. 

The following games can be played synchronously using a video conferencing platform and require minimal to no preparation. Most of them are recommended to last between 2-5 minutes depending on the size of the group. Additional suggestions are also made for how some of these icebreaker games may potentially be expanded beyond the first class meeting to connect with the course content. 

 

Ideal for  Duration
Turn your video on if..  Whole group of up to 30 students* 3-5 minutes
Three Things Small groups of 3-4 3-4 minutes
Categories Small groups of 3-5 3-4 minutes
Improv-based storytelling    Small groups of 3-5 3-5 minutes
Icebreaker questions Whole group  2-3 minutes

 

*if you have a bigger class (>30 students) and access to a teaching assistant, you could split the groups and have your teaching assistant and you lead separate groups in smaller breakout rooms. 

Things to consider when implementing suggested games

While some instructors may have found success in incorporating the icebreakers presented in this post, each learning group and context is different. You may want to adapt these games to fit your needs, classroom dynamic, students, and your own teaching personality. That being said, here are some takeaways from my implementation of these games: 

  • Keep the games short and quick. A list of games with their suggested times is presented in the next section. 
  • Model before having students play the game (especially if they have to go to breakout rooms to play in smaller groups) 
  • Participate in these games. Many games require students to share parts of themselves. Students are more likely to take risks opening up and being vulnerable if they find their instructor doing the same. 
  • For all games, consider the questions of inclusivity and access and make necessary changes. For instance, in the game Turn Your Video On If.. ,ask yourself the following questions: Are the statements representative of the diversity of my group or do they prioritize one learner experience over another? Must all students turn on their video or will the use of Zoom’s ‘thumbs up’ reaction be acceptable? For additional considerations on designing inclusive icebreakers, check out this resource provided by Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. 
  • Most importantly, have fun! 

Game descriptions, directions, and extensions

Turn Your Video On If…  

Whole group|  3-5 minutes| Kaivalya Plays

This is one of my favorite Zoom icebreakers. It helps increase participants’ comfort with having their camera on and builds a sense of sharedness. 

How to play? 

Instructor directs everyone to turn off their cameras. Once everyone’s camera is off (including the instructor’s), the instructor makes a statement. If the statement applies to them, everyone , including the instructor, turns their cameras on. For instance, 

  • Turn your camera on if you think pineapple belongs on a pizza. 
  • Turn your camera on if you like taking naps 
  • Turn your camera on if you are wearing blue

Tips: 

  • Acknowledge students’ responses aloud and build connections by personalizing them, commenting on them, and/or  summarizing them (E.g. Ah, 40% of class does like pineapple on pizza. I guess I have to give it a second chance. ; Me too, Alex, I am in the same boat) 
  • These statements can be as generic or as group-specific as you would like. I recommend statements that incorporate a sense of humor and are likely to be relevant to students’ lives. 

Beyond icebreaker:

In addition to being used at the beginning of semester as an icebreaker, this game can also be played during the semester to raise awareness of or review learners’ knowledge on a course topic and as a check to gauge learners’ wellbeing at that point of the semester

For instance, in a world language classroom, these statements could be in the target language, designed to practice a particular linguistic structure or vocabulary. Example statements on a unit on expressing familial relationships in an elementary language classroom can include  turn your video on if you have an older sister, turn your video on if you do not have a sibling, turn your video on if your older sibling is bossy, turn your video on if you are the bossy older sibling to list a few.

I also like to use this activity during the semester to check on students’ mental wellbeing. Example statements include: turn your camera on if you are beginning to feel overwhelmed by the semester, turn your camera on if you struggle with asking for help, turn your camera in if you wish it were spring break already.  The check-in normalizes talking about academic challenges in the classroom and allows learners to see that they are not alone in their struggles. Through participating in this activity, the instructor also models the courage and willingness to be vulnerable with the learning group, thus encouraging more hesitant students to participate over time. 

 

Three Things 

Small group| 3-4 minutes| Kaivalya Plays

This game is ideally played in small groups of 3-4 students. I like this game because it forces students to be fully present , mindful and relax their thinking brain. 

How to play? 

Students go around the virtual meeting room posing a question to each other, one at a time. For instance, student A asks student B a question. Student B responds with the first thing that comes to their mind and then asks another question to student C. They keep going around the room until time is up. 

The questions are meant to be random and may be about anything in the world or about their own selves. For instance, 

Student A (to Student B): Name three things that are orange in color 

B: tangerine, sun, my hair 

B (to Student C): Name three shows on Netflix 

C: Schitt’s Creek, Tiger King, Indian Matchmaking 

C (to Student D): What are three things  you like to eat for breakfast? 

D: … 

D (to A): ___________________?

Tips:

Some things to keep in mind and remind your students: 

  • Set a turn-taking sequence when you enter the group. (I find going in alphabetical order of students’ first names to be the easiest. Alternatively, students may choose to number themselves when they enter a room)
  • Ask new questions. 
  • Be quick to respond. Speak the first thing on your mind.
  • Do not dwell on what you said or didn’t say.
  • It is okay if one struggles to recall the seemingly obvious, mundane things. The struggle to recall is shared with others and is what brings humor 

Once everyone returns to the main room, ask your students if they learned anything new about each other. Invite students to post their responses in the chat or share them out aloud. 

Additional suggestions for questions: 

  • What are three things you can’t leave your home without? 
  • What are three things you like about online classes? 
  • What are three things you do not like about online classes? 
  • Name three food items  that are best enjoyed cold. 

 

Categories 

Small group|  3-4 minutes| Kaivalya Plays

This game is ideally played in small groups of 3-5 students. It requires students to be alert, listen to one another, and recall prior knowledge. 

How to play? 

The instructor splits learners into breakout rooms of 3-5 students each. Once students are in the breakout room, the instructor suggests a topic category to all groups using the Zoom broadcast feature. All group members go around the room, taking  turns listing members of that category. For instance, the topic category is : Things you find at a doctor’s office. The members of that category would include:  stethoscope, thermometer, prescription pad, weight chart, … etc. Listing ends when a group member takes too long to respond or fails to contribute. Group members pick a new category to start listing things off. 

Tips: 

  • Remind your learners to 
    • respond quickly with the very first example they can think of 
    • not dwell on what they don’t know or couldn’t remember 
  • While using Zoom’s broadcast message feature, please remember to keep the category name short since the broadcast message disappears within seconds. For instance, the category name Shahrukh Khan movies where his character’s name is Rahul is likely going to disappear before all students can finish reading the broadcast. Shahrukh Khan movies may be a better category name. 
  • To keep things fast moving and spontaneous, you may want to broadcast suggestions for new categories every thirty to forty-five seconds. Alternatively, you may want to enter a list of potential categories in the chat box  before learners head into breakout rooms 

Beyond icebreaker: 

In addition to serving as an icebreaker, I find this game useful for activating background knowledge on a new course topic as well as for reviewing previous coursework. This game is an excellent and quick alternative to concept maps or polling to gauge learners’ familiarity and/or understanding of course topics. For instance, before teaching a unit on South Asian culture, learners could be asked to consider categories such as : culture, South Asian countries, and media representation of South Asia.   

Following the breakout room, learners can be invited to reflect on questions such as: 

  • What is an example put forth by a group member that surprised you? 
  • How were your examples similar or different from your group members’? How may you explain the difference or similarity ?
  • What could be the origin of the similarity or difference?

These reflection questions can be discussed in writing individually or together in the main chat room. 

 

Improv-based Storytelling

Small group|  3-5 minutes| Kaivalya Plays, Pandemic Pedagogy 

While there are many improv-based storytelling games, the one described in this post is- one- word- (or one sentence)- at- a- time story. All improv storytelling games share two principles: respect the restriction (for instance, add one word versus one sentence) and actively listen to your team members.

How to play? 

This game is ideally played in small groups of 3-5 people. The goal is to collaboratively build a story using one word at a time. One person from the group begins a story using one word. Every new person advances the story by adding a word to what was previously said. To mark a sentence as complete, the person says ‘period’ and begins a new sentence.  The story is complete when it comes to its natural end or when the timer ends , whichever is first. Alternatively, the story can be built one sentence at a time. In this case, each group member contributes a sentence (instead of a word) building upon previous contributions. 

Tips:

Remind learners to

  • set a turn-taking sequence when they enter the breakout room. I personally prefer going in alphabetical order of student names to be the easiest. Students may also choose to number themselves when they enter the room 
  • prioritize contribution over correction of errors, for instance, of word choice or grammar
  • be willing to abandon their own idea of the direction the story “should” take and accept and build upon group members’ suggestions 

Beyond icebreaker:

In addition to the icebreaker, this activity can also be used as a learning activity depending on the course. For instance, the activity can be used to communicate complex course ideas creatively and in simple terms. An example prompt in a group task  in a course on Popular Culture of South Asia reads: Imagine your group represents a social media blogger. Explain the notion of authenticity in Indian food to your followers, using only one sentence at a time. 

 

Icebreaker Questions

Whole group| 2-3  minutes| Pandemic Pedagogy

Another icebreaker activity that appeared to be popular among educators on Pandemic Pedagogy involved asking questions about topics unrelated to course content, thus inviting students to share their whole selves in the classroom. These questions broadly fell into two categories- close ended choice-based and open ended questions connected to students’ lives. Example question prompts are shared below.

  1. Close ended choice based questions that require students to pick from imaginary scenarios 
  • If you had a special power, what would you choose: read other people’s minds, travel back in time, be able to fly , or be invisible? 
  • Would you rather be rich or famous? 

For a list of more choice-based questions, check out this list of Would You Rather questions.  

  1. Open ended questions related to learners’ lives
  • What are you looking forward to this week ?
  • If you could recommend one place I visit on campus, which one would that be? 
  • If you could have only one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? 
  • If you could have coffee with someone famous, dead or alive,  who would that be?

How to play? 

There may be many ways to conduct this activity online. Personally, I have found cascading  responses or what Derek Bruff calls Ready-Set-Go technique to be the most effortless and engaging. Instructor poses the question and asks students to type their response, but not hit enter. Once everyone has had the time to think and type their responses (usually less than 30 seconds), the instructor counts down from three and everyone hits enter together. Alternatively, you could ask learners to give you a visual cue once they have finished typing , for instance, turn off their video or raise their hand. Once responses start coming in, spend some time scrolling through students’ responses together. 

Tips: 

  • Read aloud the responses as you are scrolling through them. 
  • Comment on some interesting responses or if you notice any patterns. 
  • Encourage students to use the chat to comment on others’ responses. 

These games hopefully provide some guidance on how to conduct icebreakers online. 

If you are looking for more ideas, here is a list of online sources for icebreakers and brain breaks: 

Credits 

Kaivalya Plays is a New Delhi -based performing arts and production company. Since May 2020, they have been offering free virtual improv jams on Zoom . They offer a variety of paid and free improvisational theater opportunities to a global audience. 

Pandemic Pedagogy is a closed Facebook group now consisting of over thirty thousand members engaged in a conversation on teaching and learning


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