From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Icebreakers are a critical part of any interactive, online course. They establish the tone and expectations early on, and are essential first steps for creating a sense of community between you and your students. Without some form of activity in place that allows students to introduce themselves, it is very easy for online education to fail to meet the challenges of teaching students at a distance, and instead creating an exercise in isolation and frustration.

Faculty Tip: Deanna D Retzlaff - Assistant Professor - Food Science Institute


Learners will...

  • Understand what an icebreaker is.
  • Review some of the benefits of using are for students and the instructor.
  • Be able to create a simple icebreaker using an online message board.

Main Concepts

Icebreakers are any activity or exercise that helps students to introduce themselves to you and their peers in an organized, non-threatening, often playful, manner. Without the convenience of face-to-face contact, many of the unspoken cues and other key aspects of communication are simply missing. As an instructor, you will no longer be able to look out into the classroom and see if your students are “getting it.” Students will not be able to hang by your office door after class with questions.

Establishing identity through icebreakers goes a long way towards over coming the hurdle of separation between you, your students, and their peers. Such activities build a foundation for later synchronous communication experiences such as chat rooms and Wimba Classroom sessions, as well as help set the stage for group work. Also, icebreakers provide you with the opportunity to set guidelines for online communication and create boundaries for acceptable behavior in your course. The best way for you to promote your expectations in your class is to model the behavior. So, don’t forget to participate in the icebreaker yourself from the onset of the exercise. Icebreakers give students the chance to take ownership over their own online presence, and in the process foster greater buy-in and involvement.

How to

The classic icebreaker in many online classes is to start the course off with a brief biography on the message board. Be sure to explain the activity in your syllabus and/or your course information section of your course. It is often a good idea to assign a grade for participating in the endeavor.

Then go to your message board and enter the very first post re-explaining the activity and your corresponding expectations. It is helpful to provide a specific, open-ended questions for your students to answer.

Ask that your students reply to your initial post. This helps keep the message board organized, as each reply is indented beneath your initial post, giving the discussion a more readable “threaded” appearance. After you have set up the first post, click on the Reply button and model the activity with your own brief bio. Pay attention to the tone and style of your post since this is where your students will begin to form their own impression of you, the instructor.

As the deadline for this activity approaches, email the students that have not yet participated in the icebreaker to find out if there are any technology related, or personal difficulties leading to their absence.

Also, take the time to read everyone’s posts, just as would take the time to speak with your students in your face-to-face class.


There are many different ways to break the ice online. But, not every icebreaker is suitable for every course or instructor. Pick and choose the experience that best fits your teaching style and course material. If you do come up with a new and original icebreaker that works particularly well, don’t forget to share it.

Here are a few examples of other common icebreakers: Interview a Peer Break up your class into pairs and have the students interview each other. Once they have finished, have your pairs write up their interviews and post them to the message board as introductions for the whole class.

First Experiences Ask the students to describe their first experience with a given topic. This works particularly well if the topic relates closely to core of what the course is about.

Two Lies and a Truth Ask the students to share two lies and one truth about themselves. Then step back and let the fun begin as students try to discover which is which on the message board. Don’t hesitate to step in if things start to get out of hand.

Possible Pitfalls

  • Too much information (TMI)

Some students may disclose too much about themselves online. Keep an eye out for this and gently nudge them back toward appropriate behavior with personal emails and/or phone calls. A good rule of thumb to give your class is “if you wouldn’t share that in a face-to-face class, don’t share it online.” Icebreakers should be personable, not personal.

  • Humor

The online environment makes interpreting humor unpredictable at best. Not everyone, or every culture, expresses humor the same way. Especially, be leery of sarcasm, as it often appears mean or cruel online.

  • Multiculturalism

Lots of people take courses online. They come from all walks of life from all over the world. Even time zones can easily become and issue in an online course. Be sensitive to your students’ needs.