This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

Preparing for the fall 2020 semester and looking for resources to support online learning, teachers have been reaching out on various online teacher communities. One topic that kept popping up was icebreakers and especially what icebreakers worked well in an online classroom. In this article, we will take a look at interesting icebreakers that college teachers will be using, as well as inspiring resources gathered on some Facebook groups for teachers.

What are icebreakers?

When groups get together, icebreaker activities serve as opportunities to connect with and get to know the other people in the group. Even though they are talking through a rectangular screen, teachers feel they need to establish a connection with their students, to get to know them. Students need to talk and get to know each other as well. Thus, icebreakers play a significant role in classrooms as they foster communication and help students feel a level of comfort when participating.

Effective ice breaking strategies

A number of resources and ideas have been shared by some generous and inspiring teachers. Many of these activities will require you use breakout rooms in your preferred video conferencing platform. Here are the links to the instruction to create breakout rooms for Teams or Zoom.

Talk Fast or Die

Talk Fast or Die is an ice breaker suggested by Nicholas Walker from Collège Ahuntsic. Nicholas teaches ESL and uses this activity with intermediate level students.
How to:

  • Groups of 3 or 4 students are set up.
  • A student reads the prompt generated on the Talk Fast or Die webpage and has to speak about the topic for 1 minute without hesitating or repeating themselves to earn a point.
  • The partners will warn the student by saying “Talk” if there is too much repetition and “Die!” if the student continues to repeat or hesitate.

You can integrate the activity in your own website or Moodle.

Word cloud art

Erin Clarke at Mérici College will have her ESL students get better acquainted by having them create a word cloud describing their personality and feelings. The students can use the free version (not necessary to create an account) of that will allow them to pick a shape as well as colour fonts for their word cloud. The students download a JPEG version of their creation and share it with the class on Omnivox-LÉA. Then Erin will set up breakout rooms and have the students interview each other and present their word cloud art.

Word cloud art students can use to talk about themselves (Source: Erin Clarke)

Show and Tell

It’s a classic but transferring it online makes it really interesting according to Randall Spear, ESL teacher at Cégep de Sainte-Foy. Ask students to find an object in their home and explain why it is important to them. The students get to find out a little about each other and it gives the teacher a springboard to talk to the students about different topics as well. A drawing could turn into what they want to do in the future. For example, he had a student take out her violin and play a tune!

For literature classes

Valerie Normandin is a pedagogical counsellor at Campus Notre-Dame-de-Foy. She prefers very collaborative activities from the beginning to break the impression of distance and isolation. For literature classes she suggests:

  • Break class into small groups with a communication task to be completed (they should talk among themselves and then present to the class). Suggested topics:

    • favorite book
    • favorite genres
    • movie adaptations of books
    • “what I know about a certain topic”
    • etc.

    This type of activity not only allows them to chat with each other but also to become
    familiar with the tools of the video platform. Then students talk to the class (which
    should become a habit) while reactivating their knowledge.

  • What about a little digital scrapbooking [in French] in small groups ? Have students add pictures of the books that have left a lasting impression on them and then ask them to classify books by exploring the notions of genre

    To do this activity, teachers can use:

    For teachers, this exercise is also a good opportunity to talk about copyright, citing sources, and to start the online course with the notion of intellectual property and the principle of intellectual integrity.

Make predictions & Using Post-its

Tanya Paquette teaches ESL at St-Hyacinthe and uses an icebreaker activity to introduce the texts students will have to read. They receive the first paragraph of each text and have to predict what it will be about (type of text, continuation of the story, etc.) They get to meet other students in small groups and are often more curious to read the text later on during the session.

Another activity she suggests is to use Jamboard (a cloud-based whiteboard and G-Suite app)
and have students each upload a post-it with their names, hobby, favorite course, etc. It’s an idea she got from the TÉLUQ course “J’enseigne à distance” [in French].

Further resources

Other teachers suggested the following websites:

The bottom line

As educators we know that creating a sense of community in our classrooms is an important goal because we understand that students learn best when they feel a connection. Ice breakers are an excellent strategy to achieve this goal since they fully engage the participants and they are designed to ensure that all are equal participants…including the teacher!

In their article 21 Social Distance-Friendly and Virtual Icebreakers Students Will Actually Have Fun With, the Bored Teachers platform give this very important advice:

Make sure you also participate in these activities whether they are in-person or virtual icebreakers. Your students need to get to know you as well in order to build connection.

Did I miss out on anything? Please add other great ice breakers that you have tried in the comment section below.

About the author

Susan MacNeil

She has had a busy career in education. With a M.Ed she taught all levels from kindergarten to university. However, most of her career was spent at the college level teaching ESL. She gave Performa courses, lead workshops at SPEAQ, RASCALS and l’AQPC. She served at the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur where she contributed to the evaluation of the general education components. She received grants from L’Entente Canada-Québec for various
research projects. Susan is also the recipient of the AQPC Mention d’honneur Award. Having retired from teaching she became a contributor to Real Life Stories of education technology integration at Eductive. Chinese ink painting helps her relax and travel keeps her energized.

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