Incoming freshmen face an unprecedented challenge: their very first university semester is set to be partially or fully online. Sophomore, junior and senior students are encountering an equally difficult challenge, deprived of the close friends and familiar on-campus support systems they relied on. 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 icebreakers will help start discussions and allow students to feel welcomed in your virtual classroom. These activities may even strengthen camaraderie and team building amongst students for the duration of the semester and beyond.

Virtual icebreaker activities can be facilitated synchronously via Zoom, asynchronously via your learning management system (LMS) or in Top Hat where you have the flexibility to do both real-time or self-paced exercises. It’s no doubt that the infamous ‘two truths and a lie’ or ‘would you rather’ icebreakers are overdone. To help you instill a sense of community among students, consider the following activities below, designed for any course 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 tutorials. Ask students to agree on a random topic such as sports, movies or university life. Have each person contribute only three words to the story. This way, 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 moderate the lecture, 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. What’s in front of you?

Icebreaker concept: Regardless of class size, this icebreaker provides students and faculty with a humanizing behind-the-scenes look into the reality of remote learning. Have students take a photo 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. With the former modality, consider using Top Hat’s new live chat feature that lets students upload photos from their computers. Students can then ‘raise their hands’ should 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.

3. 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.

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 a 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.

4. Then versus now

Icebreaker concept: The path that students have chosen for themselves now may have not 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 groups. In Top Hat, set up two word answer questions in advance of your synchronous class. Your first 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.

5. Collaborative resumé

Icebreaker concept: This is the ultimate team-building icebreaker for getting a snapshot of students’ education, work backgrounds, hobbies and more. Students create a group resumé that captures what they want to get out of the course, their 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 works best in groups of 4–6 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 teams into breakout rooms in Zoom. 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. This small group exercise run in breakout rooms in Zoom can also provide an intimate, interactive learning experience for students to get to know each other better.