“Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.”

― Dale Carnegie

How much does a polar bear weigh?  Wait for it.  Enough to break the ice. (insert collective groan here).

Actually, an adult male polar bear weighs 775 to 1,200 pounds.  Females weigh 330 to 650 pounds.  According to Polar Bears International, the largest polar bear recorded weighed 2,209 pounds.

Who knew you could learn so much from a cheesy pickup line?

Why I like to Break the Ice:

I have loved online icebreakers since I was asked to complete one as a student in the LERN Certified Online Instructor program.  It felt like an entertaining way to connect with my classmates.

They might seem a little silly on the surface, but they can be very impactful.  Icebreakers are a great way to:

  • Let your guard down and humanize your online course from day one by participating alongside your online students
  • Give your students a low-stakes opportunity to learn how to use the discussion board to develop connections with their classmates
  • Look for common threads that you can use to connect with your students throughout the course
  • Get a sense of the unique “personality” of each online course section that you teach

Set the Stage with Personal Introductions:

Here is an example of how I have my online students introduce themselves prior to completing their icebreakers.  I use this introduction (and their “Intro to the Course” quiz) to gather information about what drives my students.  It is also a perfect place to deal with any concerns that students have about online courses right out of the gate.

This is a 3-part introduction:

1.) Introduce yourself to the class:

Why are you here?  What makes you get up in the morning?  What makes you happy?  What brings you joy?  What would you like us to know about you?  What is something you are willing to share that tells us something important about you?  Share away!

2.) Online course thoughts:

If this is your first online course: Are you excited to try an online course? What is your biggest concern? What can I do to guide you through this course? What do you expect from your classmates? I want to deal with any of your concerns right away so that we can get down to the business of learning anatomy.

If you have taken an online course (especially with me): What advice would you offer to a student that has never taken an online course before? What do you wish you had known prior to taking online courses in the past? Share some advice for the students that are new to online courses.

3.) Time to Break the Ice:

My 3 Favorite Online Course Icebreakers:

I use a lot of different icebreakers because I teach a wide variety of different online courses.  It is not uncommon to have one student take three or four online courses with me.  I try to keep things fresh.

There are a lot of great icebreakers out there, but these are the three that I come back to most frequently.

1.  Three Nouns and Two Verbs:

Share three (3) nouns and two (2) verbs that best represent who you are as a person.  Explain why each noun and verb you selected represents who you are.  Your explanations do not need to be lengthy.

To maintain a safe, professional, and respectful environment, please do not choose words that are (or could be perceived as) profane, raunchy, or offensive in any way.

I will get us started by sharing my answers here.  My name is Frank O’Neill (Dr. O). Here are some words that describe me:

  • Brain: I am super nerdy and proud of it. I am so amazed at the human body and the world that we live in. Learning is my main hobby unless you count playing superheroes with my son!
  • Shield: I love teaching and learning, but my main priority will always be my family. I do my best to keep their minds, bodies, and spirits from harm whenever possible.
  • Scaffold: My goal as a teacher and a parent is to lay out a framework that allows people to reach the highest heights possible.
  • Engage: I don’t want to live a passive existence. I try to keep my mind focused on being a better dad, husband, teacher, and human each and every day. I don’t want to look back on life and feel like I wasted any of it.
  • Driving: I commute about 13 hours a week to teach. I make the best of it by listening to podcasts and audio-books that feed my passion for learning, but it is also one of the reasons that I love online courses.  Teaching online allows me to do the job that I love AND be home with my family more.

Bonus Tip:  Turn the responses into a Word Cloud so your students can see all of their word choices in one place.  This is a great way to connect your students and build a sense of community early in the course.

2.  Movie Clip Icebreaker:

Take a moment to help us learn more about you by completing this icebreaker exercise.  Share a clip from a movie that you love (Nothing too graphic or inappropriate please) and explain why you love it.  Here is mine:

This is a powerful scene from a Mel Gibson movie called We Were Soldiers:

I love this scene for several reasons:

1)  It is an excellent reminder that there is only one race: The Human Race.

2)  The only way that we will get through tough times is TOGETHER.

3)  What a great example of leadership.  I hope that you see how seriously I take my job as your guide through the human body.  I also hope that you see that I was the first to set foot on the field (of this course), and I will be the last to step off.

4)  I will leave NO ONE behind!

I hope you have a great semester!

Be blessed,

Dr. O

Here is another excellent clip that I will use from time to time.  My students love this clip, and it really sets the mood when I use this clip to introduce my students to the idea of developing a growth mindset:

Bonus Tip:  Keep a running tally of the clips that your online students share.  I like to send out a list of the top 3-5 most shared clips so my students can see how their choices compare to previous semesters.  Some students share clips that I have never seen before, but be prepared to see a lot of The Pursuit of Happyness, Remember the Titans, and The Blind Side

3.  Study Space Icebreaker:

I like to use this icebreaker when I am teaching an introductory course with students that are early in their learning journeys.  It is a great way for me to stress the importance of study skills and share my best tips for online course success.  This icebreaker becomes the beginning of a very powerful discussion about how to succeed in college.

Take a moment to help us learn more about you by sharing about how (and where) you like to study:

1.  Share a picture of your favorite place to study.  Why is this where you do your best work?

Here is a picture of my home office.  If I am not here I am usually at my favorite coffee shop :).

2.  What are you three must-haves while you are studying?  Do you like music playing while you study?  Do you have a favorite study snack?  Do you like to study alone or with other students?  Do you have a child (or pet) that is your study buddy?

3.  What is your favorite study-related tech?  Do you have any good resources you can share with your classmates?

Bonus Tip:  Keep an eye out for students that would like to find a classmate to study with.  Try to connect them with someone that lives nearby, or show them how to use Zoom for virtual study sessions.

Bonus Icebreaker Ideas:

Here are a few more online course icebreakers that have worked well when I want to mix things up:

1.  Play Two truths and a lie and have students ask each other questions to try to pick out the lie

2.  Have your students share a picture that is important to them and explain why it is significant

3.  Have your students write Six-word memoirs and explain them to their peers

4.   Have your students describe themselves with something interesting like images, song titles, or emojis

Final Thoughts:

My ultimate goal at the end of the first week of discussion is to show the students that they are all rowing in the same direction.  A thoughtful icebreaker has the power to be the first step in building a thriving learning community in your online courses.  Do you have a favorite icebreaker that you would like to see added to this list?  I am all ears!

I want to hear from you.  Feel free to:

  • Leave a comment below.  I will personally reply to each one
  • Tag me @GrowGrayMatter on Twitter or LinkedIn to move the discussion to my favorite social media channels
  • Send me a message through the contact form on the bottom of the About page

Crush it!

Dr. O


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