Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO
College students come from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing with them their own personalities, interests and motivation for learning. Many of them are strangers and may exhibit a wide range of emotions. One way to establish a feeling of community and to reduce feelings such as anxiety, among strangers is to implement icebreakers. Icebreakers are in-class activities designed to encourage students to become active members with the instructor as well as with one another. More importantly, icebreakers allow course instructors to better understand who is taking their course.
There are a great deal of icebreaker activities available, ranging in ability level and age-appropriateness. While much of the focus and icebreaker strategies have been geared towards children in the K-12 sectors, these strategies are adaptable and appropriate for adult learners .
Icebreakers have traditionally been used during the first weeks of a new course, specifically in the first few days; however, icebreakers can be used throughout the course on a weekly basis. Instructor prep time is typically 10-20 minutes to write up the directions for students so that all have appropriate access and that they can successfully participate in the icebreaker. Icebreakers typically take about 5-15 minutes of in-class time. Most of the planning time will center around grouping of students, and additional time can be spent to increase the depth/difficulty of the activity. No special software is needed, nor do icebreakers require funding.
All learners, in any course modality, may benefit from icebreakers. The grouping of students by the faculty member and type of icebreaker may vary depending on class size and whether the class is in-person or virtual. UGTAs and course instructors can implement icebreakers.
Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW
The best time is to use icebreakers at the beginning of the course and especially in the first few weeks of a new course. A routine use of icebreakers is highly encouraged, especially after coming off of school-related breaks or possibly as new groups form throughout the course. Planning each activity may entail 10-20 minutes, again with a large emphasis on planning for the grouping of students. In general the actual duration of the icebreaker should fall between 5-15 minutes.
Class modality: online, in-person
Using a discussion board or chat feature, ask students to post eight nouns that best describe them. Provide a few examples by introducing yourself. Allow the opportunity for students to share out. This activity helps students find commonalities among one another.
Class modality: online, in-person
Materials: faculty member pre-generated statements
Post a statement to the course that can only be answered with either “agree” or “disagree.” Students will move to either side of the room based on whether or not they agree or disagree with the statement. For online students, two breakout rooms will work for this. Allow students on each side to discuss in smaller groups. Allow time for students from each side to defend their response. This activity builds camaraderie and allows students to share their thinking in a safe manner. Stay away from controversial topics such as: religion, politics, gender identity
Hopes and Fears
Class modality: online, in-person
Use a discussion board or chat feature. Ask the students to think about hopes and fears they have for the course. If this can be done anonymously, students might share even more. Allow time for students to capture their hopes and fears. Students could be placed into groups, both in class and online. After five minutes, read the responses to the class and clarify anything that will help the fears subside. This activity can assist in building trust among students. They will see that others feel the same as they do.
Recommendations for Implementation
- Determine the icebreaker. It is recommended to have a variety of icebreakers on hand. Make sure the icebreakers are age appropriate. Ask a peer for feedback if you are unsure. Determine if there might be issues of confidentiality. Ensure you have the needed resources.
- Communicate. When you implement an icebreaker with your students, make sure to clearly communicate and display your rationale/goals for the activity (are you hoping to build class rapport, lead into content with an engaging activity, set the day’s tone, etc. ) Determine how the information you learn will guide your instruction. Will students share the information they learn about you or one another? Will you need to adapt your teaching methods based on understanding the backgrounds of your students? Will you continue to create opportunities for students to engage, be active and collaborate?
- Determine how you will signal the activity is over (posted timer, ring a bell, etc).
- Establish who will go first in the activity (seek volunteers initially, choose at random next, establish criteria so students know what to expect and when e.g. person’s last name start in alphabetical order, then in decreasing order, etc.).
- Plan for how you will let students know the individual’s participation time-this will help ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute. “Let’s keep responses to 1 minute”
- Consider grouping determinations. For in-person courses, the instructor will need to understand the classroom layout. Large, in-person courses will take a bit more planning in terms of how students are asked to get organized. The best method is for students in large groups to group with 5-6 peers around them. Online grouping can occur with the use of breakout rooms. Make sure to plan how you will help students who do not group up.
- Plan ahead. Write up step-by-step directions on how to perform the icebreaker in clear and concise language. Consider the class makeup of students (English as a second language, culture contexts, students with accessibility requirements). This will allow students of all abilities to experience success. Consider the wording to ensure all students can easily access and understand the directions. Practice as if the class was in session to alleviate nerves. This will also permit instructors to review the wording of each activity so that it can be easily understood.
- Ask for student feedback. Elicit feedback from the students via online forms (Canvas, Google Forms) or in class immediate responses (raise hands). Find out if the activity assisted in establishing , for example, a more welcoming environment or did the icebreaker help develop connections among classmates.
Rationale and Research: The WHY
College students expect the first day of a course to include learning about the course syllabus and course expectations. They also indicated that the use of an initial icebreaker activity was one of their favorite ways to begin the new course . The use of icebreakers at the beginning of a course has the opportunity to engage students immediately, and begin the process of establishing a positive classroom environment.
The end goal of any course is that students walk away learning the course material with the ability to apply the learning to scenarios. As instructors you may thoroughly enjoy the content you teach, devise relevant and engaging lessons and activities. None of this matters if the classroom environment is not set up in a way where students feel comfortable to speak up. Icebreakers are activities that can also create an open and safe classroom environment by allowing time for students to build relationships with one another and their instructor. “As an instructor, your job is to ensure that all students are engaged in learning, regardless of their backgrounds. The first step in helping students learn is to get a clear picture of who they are, both as a group and as individuals” .
A study conducted by Frisby & Martin, found that students who had a perceived rapport with instructors and classmates were related to higher perceptions of class connectedness. Furthermore, students’ class connectedness was attributed to the establishment of positive classroom environments by the instructor. Ways in which the faculty in this study created positive classroom environments included: integrated opportunities for collaborative work, asking probing questions about the material and calling students by their name .
Additional Resources and References
 Chlup, D. T., & Collins, T. E. Breaking the Ice: Using Ice-breakers and Re-energizers with Adult Learners. Adult Learning, 21(3–4), 34–39. (2010). https://doi.org/10.1177/104515951002100305
 Sawyer, J. K., Braz, M. E., & Babcock, J. L. To Get-to-Know-You or Not to Get-to-Know-You: A Two Phase Study of Initial Engagement Activities. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 21(2), 187–196. (2009).
 “Creating a community of learners – league.org.” [Online]. Available: https://www.league.org/sites/default/files/gettingresults/web/p/module1.pdf. [Accessed: 01-Aug-2022].
 B. N. Frisby and M. M. Martin, “Instructor–student and student–student rapport in the classroom,” Communication Education, vol. 59, no. 2, pp. 146–164, 2010.