Professor Wendy Smooth uses icebreaker activities to establish a sense of community at the start of the term. In large lectures, she uses simply written note cards to gather insight into her new students’ backgrounds and interests. In smaller classes, she goes even further.
"We get in a circle, and I've prepared some really quirky questions. And so, you step out into the circle if I call out something that you identify with: …'If you're from Ohio, step into the circle. If you've traveled to a foreign country, step inside the circle.' And then it can get really fun."
Smooth asks questions about music, novels, films—popular or obscure—and watches as students are surprised by the commonalities they find with peers. The activity is all about building connections and starting conversations.
Icebreakers are a common approach to helping students get to know each other, as well as course themes or policies, in the first days of class. Putting students in conversation from the get-go increases their comfort with ongoing collaboration and builds a strong community of learning. Effective icebreakers create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages participation.
The following icebreakers have been used successfully in many college classrooms. Feel free to borrow one of them for your own class. If you’re teaching online, you can adapt many of these options using CarmenCanvas Discussions or CarmenZoom or have students respond to the icebreaker prompt by posting a video for their peers.
Students may have anxiety about beginning a new course, especially if the subject matter is difficult or the course has high expectations. Have students pair up or work in groups to share some of their questions or concerns. Invite groups to share with the whole class if they feel comfortable. This provides a forum for students to discover they are not alone, and for you to address their concerns directly.
Have students introduce themselves to the rest of the class, including their names, pronouns, majors, and year in school. You can also have them include a fun fact” about themselves, which may help you to remember them a better. This is a particularly useful exercise in a course in which students will be expected to speak in front of class regularly during presentations, debates, or discussions.
Writing to know you
Instead of asking students to interview one another verbally, have them write their introductions on a note card. Students may write their names, pronouns, majors, reasons for enrolling in your course, “fun facts” about themselves, and so on. Have students swap note cards and learn about their partners without speaking. This is especially useful in a writing-intensive course.
Drawing to know you
In this variation, ask students to draw a fun fact about themselves, a meaningful experience, or their reason for enrolling in the course. Encourage them to be creative. Have them share in pairs, groups, or with the larger class. Make the activity fun by having students guess what their partners have drawn before making their introductions.
Fun fact bingo
Create bingo cards on a sheet of paper with a 5×5 grid. In each square, write a fun fact, characteristic, or experience that at least one of your students will be likely to relate to. For example: “has traveled to Europe,” “plays an instrument,” “is left-handed.” You can also make these related to your discipline.
Pass out the bingo cards. Have students walk around the class and talk to their peers until they find matches. The first to get “bingo” or fill all the squares is the winner.
Give each student a colored candy-coated chocolate or a piece of hard or chewy candy. In advance, prepare a question for each color.
red: What’s your major?
pink: What’s an exciting trip you’ve been on (or would like to go on)?
yellow: Where are you from?
orange: Why are you interested in this class?
In small groups or as a whole class, have each student share their name and pronouns and answer the question for their candy color. If there is time, pass out more candy for another round.
Before distributing your syllabus, have students get into small groups , introduce themselves, and write a list of questions they have about the class. Then hand out the syllabus and have students find answers to their questions in their groups. This icebreaker has the added benefit of familiarizing students with your course content and policies and illustrating that many of their questions can be answered by consulting the syllabus. Conclude with a whole-group debrief to discuss any remaining questions.
Separate your syllabus into sections and divide students into as many groups. Assign one section of the syllabus to each group. After introducing themselves to their groupmates, have students study their assigned sections until they are confident in their understanding. Then have each group present their section to the rest of the class.
Best and worst classes
Divide a chalkboard or whiteboard into two sections. On one side write, “The best class I have ever had.” On the other write, “The worst class I have ever had.” Under each of these headings, make two columns: “What the instructor did,” and “What the students did.”
Then have students share what they have liked and disliked about previous courses. Ask them to be careful not to mention any course, department, or instructor by name. To conclude, have an open discussion about what you and students can do to create a positive course experience together.
Common sense inventory
Make a list of true and false statements pertaining to content in your course. For example, in a biology course, you might state, “Evolution is simply change over time.” In groups, have students decide whether each statement is true or false. Debrief as a whole class by sharing answers and clarifying misconceptions.
Write two or three open-ended questions pertaining to your course content. Include at least one question that most students will be able to answer and at least one question that students will find challenging. Have students respond anonymously on note cards. Collect the answers to get a general sense of your students’ prior knowledge and preparation.
This open-ended icebreaker allows students to choose how much they’d like to share with the class and allows the class to learn more about each other personally and academically.
How it works:
To get started, explain the acronym and then allow students to popcorn around the room. In smaller groups, have everyone go through this if time allows. Larger groups could be limited to only those who feel comfortable sharing.
- Ourself - Name, pronouns, where you are from
- How I am feeling - can be interpreted in any way
- Interest of mine - can be interpreted in any way
- Objective - Why are you taking this class (if a class)? What is a goal you have for your time at Ohio State?
Dream study space
This is a fun way to get people talking and feeling more relaxed – it’s best suited for a smaller course.
How it works:
Encourage your students to take some time to find an image or come up with a description of their ideal study space. It can be anywhere: on the moon, at a beach, in an undersea cavern, in the library of their favorite fantasy series, anywhere!
Start the discussion by explaining to the class what your dream space is and why you would rather work there. Then, go around the room and have each person share with the class the reasoning behind their dream study space.
If your course is being held over Zoom, have students set their virtual background to a photo of their dream study space. This will get them familiar with the feature and give the rest of class a fun flair.
18 & under
Students get to know more about each other’s passions and accomplishments prior to college.
How it works:
Students each share an accomplishment or point of pride that occurred before they turned 18. This can be done live or on a Carmen discussion board.
Raise your hand
Great for larger classrooms, this icebreaker helps illustrate how much students have in common and can highlight the variety of experiences in your classroom.
How it works:
Ask 3-5 (or more) questions that involve being new to campus or activities done in quarantine. Students then raise their hand if they answer "Yes" to the question. Encourage people to look around and see how similar their feelings are to others. These questions could also be tied to introductory course content.
If your course occurs over Zoom, suggest that students use the raise hand or reaction features.
Questions might include:
- I have baked some form of bread/unique baked good during quarantine.
- I felt unsure of how a college class would be run before today.
- I binged a new Netflix series during quarantine (maybe ask if anyone wants to share).
- I am excited to begin my time at Ohio State.
- I am viewing this Zoom session from outside of Columbus.
- I am not originally from Ohio.
Virtual show and tell
Best for a synchronous online class, this lighthearted icebreaker allows students to share a bit about their current environment.
How it works:
Each student should select an item near them and come up with a story about it. This story can be made-up or real, funny or serious, and is typically 30 seconds or less in length. You can start the activity by sharing a story for an item in your environment and then calling on another member of class to share theirs. Larger groups could be limited to only those that feel comfortable sharing. This can also be done on Carmen in a discussion board format or by uploading and sharing a video about their object.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Adaptable for many course types and formats, this is a fun way for students to share about their lives outside of class and practice using the discussion board feature in Carmen.
How it works:
Before class, create a Carmen discussion post that is labeled something along the lines of "Summer/Quarantine Memory." During class, encourage students to visit the Carmen discussion and post a picture of themselves or something they did from the last few months. This is a great way to ensure your students have practiced using the discussion board feature in Carmen if you plan to use it later in the course.
If doing this in-person, you could scroll through the Carmen discussion (with a projector so everyone can see what you’re viewing) and encourage students who have unique pictures to introduce themselves and give a brief explanation. If you have a small enough class, have everyone introduce themselves and describe their picture.
If doing this through a Zoom session, encourage students to follow the same steps as above. You could then share your screen on Zoom and scroll through the pictures to follow the same process above. If doing this in a Carmen discussion, you could simply have the students post the picture and then provide a brief introduction of themselves and some context to their photo!
Whether done in person, over Zoom or on a discussion board, this icebreaker encourages your students to consider the variety of experiences present in the classroom.
How it works:
The goal of this icebreaker is to encourage your students to answer the question “how did you get here?”.
For major courses, that could mean explaining why they chose their major. For a GE course, that could mean explaining why they chose your class. For a class with mostly first-year students, that could mean explaining how they ended up at Ohio State. For nontraditional undergraduate students, that could be explaining why they decided to start taking classes.
Encourage your students to tell a story and avoid simply saying “because I want to be a teacher” or “because I needed a GE credit.”
This icebreaker works well in smaller courses or in a larger course divided into discussion groups. Over Zoom, students should be encouraged to turn on their cameras when they talk to the class. This could also be a Carmen discussion board.
Activities adapted from:
- Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence. (2012, September 12). Breaking the ice.
- IT@OSU. (2020, July 22). Icebreakers to Reduce Stress and Build Connection.
- Lansing Community College Center for Teaching Excellence. (2013). Icebreaker activities.
- Wiemer, M. (2013, January 9). First day of class activities that create a climate for learning. The Teaching Professor Blog.