One thing we’ve learned in our conversations with educators and students is that no one is immune to back-to-school nerves. Each classroom presents a new challenge, and a new opportunity to start again: to set the tone for the semester by creating an inclusive, community-centered, and dynamic learning environment. One of the simplest ways to do this is with an icebreaker.
Icebreakers are simple social exercises that promote community and connection, which in turn boosts emotional and cognitive engagement in the course. According to one study, when students feel socially engaged their class performance actually improves. Icebreakers can ease anxiety, prepare students for collaborative work by giving them context and information about each other, and, at their most basic, help you learn the names of your students.
We’ve collected tried-and-tested icebreakers for the classroom, so save this page to simplify future class prep. Some are more appropriate for certain class sizes or subjects (an intimate creative workshop and a three-hundred student intro class have different energies and requirements), and some may work better in-person than online (and vice versa). Virtual learning, however, actually opens up new possibilities in larger classes that, in person, run the risk of being intimidating and anonymous—try using breakout rooms for the icebreaker activities to support more relaxed and intimate discussions. Additionally, consider whether to share your icebreaker ahead of class to give students time to prepare their answers—being put on the spot can spike anxiety in some individuals.
(Want more suggestions? Journalist Rob Walker has crowdsourced a great (and growing!) list of creative icebreakers through his newsletter, The Art of Noticing. Some of the below came from there; you can access all of the collected icebreakers at this Google doc.)
- A favorite from Dr. Amber Spry, assistant professor Politics and African & African American Studies at Brandeis University: “How does your family / your culture cook or prepare rice?” As she says, “Asking students to share their experience with something where perspectives vary so widely is useful for pedagogical reasons. It models for the class early on that our answers to some questions will be different depending on the background we have when we enter the conversation. It gets the class to think about their relationship with culture. I use this little question about rice to transition to a more substantive discussion about how the same topic can mean many things to different people, and the way we engage with difference matters.”
- If you could time travel, where would you go and why?
- What song is most often stuck in your head?
- Two Truths and a Lie: Each student gives three facts about themselves, two of which are true and one of which is false. The other students vote on which is the lie.
- What do you wish was a college major but isn’t?
- If you had to choose one image that represents your personality to show someone who doesn’t speak your language, what would you show them and why?
- Which book do you most often recommend to others?
- What is the last gift you gave (or received)?
- What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
- If you had to take a bath in a food, which food would you choose?
- What’s the last thing you cooked for yourself?
- What’s something new you’ve learned about yourself recently?
- If you had to describe your feelings as a weather pattern, what’s the current forecast?
- Looking for a more interactive icebreaker? Distribute index cards to students and ask them all to write down an interesting fact about themselves (or, if teaching remotely, ask students to send you a private message). Read the facts aloud and have students guess which person “owns” each interesting fact.
- Visual scavenger hunt: Give students one minute to take a photo of something in their space that ties back to a theme—a word like “adventure,” or even simply a color—before coming back to share their photo with the group.
- Distribute students into three or more breakout rooms, and have them create lists of interesting things they all have in common and qualities that are unique to each participant. After 5 minutes, come back and share these lists with the group.
- Too many students or too little time to do a lengthy icebreaker activity? Try a Zoom poll. Ask a question related to the course material, or one that invites students to find commonalities. Or, you could ask students to share a single word that describes their current mood in the group chat.