When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, freshmen faced a new challenge: forming a sense of belonging with their peers, entirely online. Faculty alike were tasked with helping their students warm up to one another only through video conferencing platforms. Sophomore to senior students may have encountered an equally difficult challenge, deprived of the close friends and familiar on-campus support systems they relied on.
Classroom icebreakers—activities designed to facilitate initial conversation and help students warm up to one another—are much needed in an educational environment that now favors digital delivery. Effective educational icebreaker games will help start discussions and allow students to feel welcomed in your virtual meetings. Good online icebreakers can even strengthen team bonding amongst students for the duration of the semester and beyond.
There are plenty of Zoom icebreakers for students, while other virtual icebreaker activities can be facilitated asynchronously via collaboration tools in your learning management system (LMS) or in Top Hat, where you have the flexibility to do both real-time or self-paced exercises.
If you’re looking to move past icebreakers like ‘two truths and a lie,’ ‘would you rather,’ or the standard scavenger hunt, download The Ultimate List of Icebreakers for College Courses and create a vibrant online learning environment (get the free list here).
To help you incorporate virtual ‘water cooler’ moments in your course, consider these Top Hat and Zoom icebreakers for students below, which work in any modality.
1. Story time in three words
Icebreaker concept: This icebreaker is perfect for smaller groups and is a fun way to gauge non-academic interests. It’s ideal for classes of 20–30 or as an activity that TAs can run at the start of online meetings. Ask students to agree on a random topic such as sports, films or university life. Have each person contribute only three words to the story. Everyone has an equal opportunity to participate while no one is aware of what the person before will contribute. The goal is to move as quickly as possible from one student to another to get participants to think creatively on the spot.
The required setup: Group students in a particular order, such as alphabetically, or have students choose their own groups in the tutorial. This virtual icebreaker works best and creates the most fun in a synchronous environment. With Top Hat’s virtual classroom functionality, professors are given the chance to ‘share the stage’ with students who raise their hand. Moderation tools used by instructors allow one student at a time to act as the meeting facilitator, making it simple for students to speak one after the other. Only one student will be able to share their video and audio feed at a time.
2. Collaborative resumé
Icebreaker concept: This is the ultimate team-building icebreaker for getting a snapshot of students’ education, work backgrounds, hobbies and more. It’s also a great icebreaker to use during the first week of class, where students are meeting one another for the first time. Students work together to create a group resumé that captures what they want to get out of the course, their current knowledge of course content, previous related work experiences and high school endeavors and any notable accomplishments. A framework is here to get you started in thinking about what areas you might request students to list.
The required setup: This exercise—designed to develop students’ teamwork skills—works best in groups of four to six and may benefit from being administered in tutorials. A synchronous approach is recommended in order to encourage equal participation among students. After splitting students into small groups, separate team members into breakout rooms in Zoom. Ask students to engage in a brainstorming session for ten to 15 minutes, filling in their assignment sheet. Ensure one person per group is designated as a team captain to submit the assignment at the end of the exercise, either via Top Hat, your LMS or an active learning platform of your choice. If run in breakout rooms in Zoom, this small group exercise can also provide an intimate, interactive learning experience for students to get to know each other better.
3. Movie pitch
Icebreaker concept: This fun icebreaker allows students to develop their research, collaboration and communication skills. Put students into groups of five and ask them to come up with an idea (and pitch) for a new movie they would like to hypothetically produce. After ten minutes of preparation, ask one or two students per group to share their pitch with the rest of the class. Once all groups have presented their pitches, the remaining classmates will vote on which idea they think deserves funding. Award the winners a small reward of your choice, such as a bonus point on an upcoming assignment or a gift card.
The required setup: This Zoom icebreaker works best in small groups in breakout rooms. You may hop from room to room to offer advice, research techniques or to check in on students’ progress. Have students pick one or two students per group to pitch their idea to the larger group. After ten to 15 minutes of preparation, move all students back to the larger room and have students begin pitching.
Online icebreakers for large classes
4. What’s in front of you?
Icebreaker concept: Regardless of class size, this icebreaker question provides students and faculty with a humanizing behind-the-scenes look into the reality of remote learning. Have students take a picture of something salient that’s in front of their workspace. Perhaps it’s a wall of photos with their closest friends or their pet that keeps them company during online courses. In order to keep this icebreaker equitable and ensure all students are comfortable participating regardless of their living arrangements, an alternative is to ask students to share a photo of their choice and describe the significance behind it.
The required setup: This virtual icebreaker works well in either synchronous or asynchronous learning environments. Should you use a video call, consider using Top Hat’s live chat box that lets students upload photos from their computers. Students can then ‘raise their hands’ if they feel comfortable explaining the significance of their photo. You can then switch moderating duties and allow one student at a time to discuss the relevance of the media they shared. If you run asynchronous classes, consider opening a new discussion forum dedicated to this exercise in your LMS.
Students may be split up in smaller groups to ensure everyone feels comfortable participating. From here, students can upload imagery at their leisure to their assigned group in the LMS if they feel inclined to do so. Viewing all media at a glance can help strengthen peer-to-peer interactions should students choose to start threads and comment on their peers’ media.
5. Around the world
Icebreaker concept: Though the above icebreaker may provide insight as to what a student’s reality looks like beyond academia, it’s hard to tell where students are in the country—or the world. Providing students with an opportunity to discuss their geographic background lends to a more humanizing educational experience. It can also provide a way for students to learn who’s in close proximity to them, making this an ideal icebreaker for international students. Download our free list of college icebreakers for 50 humanizing online activities.
The required setup: This icebreaker works well in both tutorial sizes of 20–30 and in large lectures. Top Hat’s click on target question type helps to facilitate this virtual icebreaker. Create a click-on-target question and upload an image of a map of the world. Next, have students select where they are currently situated. Once you present this question in a live lecture—and once your students provide their answers—everyone can see a holistic picture of who is located where, based on what areas are denser in color.
If this activity is run in large lectures, consider having 30 students complete this exercise week over week, while the rest of the class can watch for fun. An asynchronous route for this icebreaker involves using either a social media platform or course discussion board where students can describe a) where they currently are and b) one fun fact about the area that they live in. This ensures international students are given an adequate opportunity to share their backgrounds with the larger class.
6. Then versus now
Icebreaker concept: The path that students have chosen for themselves now may not have been their desired journey when they were young. In this virtual icebreaker, students share what they envisioned themselves being when they grew up and whether that is still the answer in university. Some interesting patterns may arise should students say they wanted to follow a STEM-related profession when they are now in the humanities—or vice versa. This exercise allows students to reflect upon their academic and career trajectories thus far and helps students compare and contrast their aspirations with that of their classmates.
The required setup: This activity works well in either large or small remote teams. In Top Hat, set up two word answer questions in advance of your synchronous class. Your first icebreaker question may be as simple as “what did you want to be when you grew up?” Have students respond and show the results as a word cloud. Your second question may read “what career do you picture yourself having now?” Again, show the results as a word cloud. The larger the word, the more students responded in that particular way.
Next, open the floor up for discussion where students can ‘raise their hands’ to discuss their previous hopes versus their current ambitions. As an asynchronous alternative, consider embedding the above questions in a homework assignment that students complete before class begins. You can then compare answers at the start of your next class or post an image of the word cloud in your LMS or active learning platform if you’re teaching solely asynchronously. This helps strengthen a sense of community among your students who may be on a completely different path than they thought they would take.
Good online icebreakers to help students open up to their peers
7. Eight nouns
Icebreaker concept: This icebreaker activity works well in medium-sized groups of no more than 30. Students are asked to generate eight nouns that best describe them on a personal level. These could include personal interests, personality traits and more. After five minutes, encourage students to share why their set of nouns are representative of their personalities and backgrounds.
The required setup: This is a great Zoom icebreaker. Using your video conferencing software in a synchronous class, allow students to reflect individually before sharing their ideas with the group. Consider asking students to give you a ‘thumbs up’ emoji to indicate whether they’d like to share in front of the larger group. In an asynchronous learning environment, this class icebreaker can be facilitated through a discussion board or a Google Doc.
8. Rather than
Icebreaker concept: This educational icebreaker allows students to learn about their peers’ preferences and personalities, all while testing their memory. This activity works well in small classes and can be facilitated in live online classes. Have one student share something they’d like to do, such as skydive. The next student restates what was shared plus adds something that they would rather do (i.e., “skydive, go snorkelling.”) The activity continues until every student has had a chance to contribute.
The required setup: This virtual team icebreaker works best in synchronous courses. If you’re using Zoom, consider taking a screenshot of your Zoom tile view and sharing it with the class so students know what order to proceed in. Since this is both a communication and memory game, if students can’t remember what their peers shared before them, think about making a note of the items contributed throughout to help students should they get stumped.
9. Get that coin
Icebreaker concept: Ask students to make sure they have some loose change on them when logging on to class. Run this activity in small groups—with no more than ten per group. Have students introduce themselves, select a coin and share one interesting fact or event that occurred in their lives the year the coin was minted. If the coin was minted in a year before they were born, ask students to share a notable global event and explain the significance behind it. This icebreaker lets students share their personal histories and backgrounds with their peers in a controlled way. For more activities to help students feel comfortable in front of their peers, download our Ultimate List of Icebreakers for College Courses here.
The required setup: In a synchronous class, have students emoji-react should they have a coin or note on them and want to share with the group. Refer to your tile view in Zoom to see who would like to share. In an asynchronous class, consider facilitating this activity in an anonymous discussion forum in Top Hat. Students can note the year their coin was minted along with their fun fact about themselves from that year.
10. Hopes and fears
Icebreaker concept: Have students partner up and ask them to spend five minutes capturing their biggest hopes and fears for your course. After time’s up, consider reading some of the answers anonymously to help students realize who else feels the same as they do.
The required setup: In a synchronous online class, have students partner up and place them into a breakout room in Zoom. Give pairs a set amount of time to generate a list of their hopes and fears. You may also wish to embed an asynchronous element into this exercise: consider running an anonymous discussion question in Top Hat to let students capture their thoughts throughout. Should you run this exercise entirely asynchronously, students can reflect individually in an anonymous discussion forum in Top Hat.