Using Online Icebreakers to Promote Student/Teacher Interaction

I. Objective
II. Rationale
III. Definitions
IV. Techniques
V. Resources

I. Objective: To encourage interaction in your online course through engaging online activities.


II. Rationale: In an online environment, human interaction does not just happen naturally. Your online students need a way to get to know you, the instructor, and others. There are several ways to encourage your students to interact with each other. The idea is to be creative and set several guidelines for students to follow in order to stimulate asynchronous discussions.

Here are some considerations from eCollege's Instructional Design Tutorial section about Engaging Learners in the online environment. (orange font references this tutorial from here on)

How will you initially engage your students?

It is well accepted that: "frequent student-faculty contact in and out of class is a most important factor in student motivation and involvement" (Chickering and Ehrmann, 1996).

It is also the case that: many instructors who are new to the online environment have legitimate concern as to the impact of the loss of face-to-face classroom interaction. Also, many students who are new to online courses are frequently anxious about this new way of learning and greatly appreciate a supportive teacher.

Given these observations: we believe that it is highly beneficial, if not absolutely essential, for instructors who are leading online courses to "reach out" and communicate with their online students--early and often. In addition, we suggest you consider the following strategies for engaging your students as you get your course underway.

III. Definitions:

asynchronous - an online environment in which discussions are ongoing over several days and several online visits occur at different times and are determined by the students' self-regulation.

icebreaker- an alternative way to get to know one another and break down the online walls due to the online environmenal aspects.

interaction - reciprocal dialogue and influence between the learner and the instructor, among learners, and/or between learners and the instructional content.

threaded discussion - an asynchronous activity during which students respond to a topic of discussion and respond to other students' responses.


IV. Techniques:

1. Create a biography of yourself and prepare a brief video introducing yourself and the course topic to the class. This could be the first thing that the students sees in his or her course shell. This is a great way to present your personality online and set the mood for the semester.

2. Have students place a one page vita in document sharing for all to view within the first week of the semester.

3. Set up a threaded discussion asking students to respond and share about his or her experiences with issues related to the course topic.

Suggestions from

4. Send a "Welcome" email. Even before the course starts, send an email introducing yourself, welcoming students to the course, providing tips for getting started, and/or informing them as to how to access helpdesk resources. You might also provide them with alternate methods for reaching you in case of an "emergency"--e.g. your office phone, home number, or an alternate email address.

5. Course Home Page Welcome. In the announcements and/or the Course Homepage post a "Welcome" message that greets the students and informs them as to how to get started and how to get help. Think about enhancing your text messages with attractive images, as well a brief audio or video introduction. You may have essentially the same information as in your Welcome email, but being redundant in the online environment is more beneficial than not.

6. Set up a "Class Lounge." Under Course Home, create an informal conversational space using the Threaded Discussion tool. This sort of ungraded "CyberCafe" or "Discussion Board," like the Student Union on campus, allows students to connect on a social level. It can be a very useful place to have students introduce themselves to one another, as well as to ask questions or make observations about the course. Note that it provides an alternative to emailing you, and it enables all class members to see important issues raised and resolved.

7. Establish a Chat Time. In addition, or as a complement to, the Class Lounge, create some "office hours" when students can drop in or invite students to contact you for one-to-one appointments.

8. Be available and accessible. In all communications, particularly early on when establishing "first impressions," to the extent possible, strive to let students know that you are available, approachable, supportive, and actively interested in mentoring them. While this may involve some effort on your part, the payoffs for both instructor and students will be worth it.

Additional Techniques: These techniques are a compilation of suggestions from a "online icebreakers" threaded discussion in an online Advanced Instructional Design course at the University of South Alabama.

9. Two Lies and A Truth. My activity for my students is for them to list three interesting things about themselves. (I own two iguanas; I once shook hands with Tom Cruise; and I love to waterski.) Two must be lies and one must be true. Other students must vote to determine which interesting thing is a lie. The student with the most incorrect votes wins. --Suhana Chikatla

10. Childhood Dream. Ask the students to share their childhood dream (what they wanted to be or do when they grew up) and then ask them to reflect on how their current coursework correlates with their current aspirations.--Charles Collins

11. Vacation Needs. Ask the students to respond to these questions about distance and fun in the Discussion Thread Area: A. "Since this is summer time and we would most likely rather be on vacation, tell us the farthest distance you have traveled and where to on a vacation or a business-vacation?" B. "Where would you like to go on a vacation right now if you could?" With this sharing in the on-line class, others may have been to some of the same places or would like to find out more from those that have gone.--David Hall

12. Vita Trading. Ask the students to upload their vitas to document sharing to share with the whole class. Then each student will then read the other students' vitae and come up with 5 words to describe each student in a threaded discussion. The idea behind this activity is to get the students to introduce themselves and each other. --Joyce Guest

13. Interviewing. Ask the students to pair up and interview each other. The students will then report on what they discovered about each other.--Stu Hickman

14. Special Topics. Ask the students to share their experiences with the topic being studied. Also ask them to discuss why he or she is interested in this area. For example, many special education teachers are able to describe a specific experience that led them into the field. The class will be asked if they have had similar experiences and will be encouraged to explain it to the class. --Katherine Jackson

15. The Three R's. Ask the students to introduce themselves to everyone in the class and tell something about themselves and their experiences in previous mathematics classes. Then ask the following questions about Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic:

"Why is it that in society if someone says 'Hey I can't do math, I am no good at it!' that many others respond by saying 'I know what you are talking about, I can't do it either!' and everyone laughs and cuts up BUT if someone says 'Hey I can't read or write, I am no good at it!' the whole room goes quiet, eyes shift to the floor and everyone walks away from that person like something was wrong with them."

Think about this and tell me in your own words why it is acceptable to be inept at one of the R's but not the others in our society and how this might motivate you in attempting to learn mathematics.--Gholamreza Tashbin

16. Miscomm-puter-unication. Ask the class to share their most embarrassing mishap using a computer. Share with the students your own experience, for example, replying to the wrong person in an email. This will loosen them up and cause a few to chuckle before we embark on a whole new way of thinking…using technology instead of paper and pen.--Crystal Thomas

17. Meeting Someone. Storytelling is a wonderful way to get people to show (some of) his or her true colors. Ask the students to share about his or her favorite musician, telling what they think draws them into that kind of music or musician's personality and then conjure a fantasy story about meeting them. In short, I would ask: Who is your favorite musician, why do you like them, and what would you say to him or her if you could meet them today? --Jane Wimberg

18. Welcome to WalMart. Since moving to Mobile two years ago, I have been intrigued with the popularity of the Super Wal-Mart. I have never seen a place so busy, regardless of time or day. Ask the students to list four items that can be found in Super Wal-Mart that best describe themself.--John Rivers

19. Memory Lane. Since so many online students are so diverse in age as well as other things, such as ethnicity, it is good to close or expose the generation gaps that might exist. Ask the students to list three major world events that happened the year in which they were born, then have the other members guess the year and post a short response on whether they remembered the events or had never heard of them.--Sarah Odom

20. Mapquest. Many online classes include a variety of students from different cultures and locations around the world. In this activity, each student is to:
1. Identify their location (where they live at the moment they take the course)
2. how far is it from USA - Mobile, Alabama (use a mapping site from the internet, ie.
3. Identify one interesting highlight of that location (example: Lexington, Tennessee is exactly 100 miles from Memphis and 100 miles from Nashville). --Wes Miller

21. Tell us about yourself. How do you primarily identify yourself? (Are you a parent first, a professional 1st, a christian first, a student 1st, etc.) What is your zodiac sign? Have you successfully explained your area of study to any of your family members yet (This applies in Instructional Design)? --Bobby Goshal

22. Learning Styles. I’m interested in learning styles and thought about asking each of you to take the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory. BUT I cannot find that online for free and instead would like each of you to take a Multiple Intelligence Inventory online that is offered free by the Learning Disabilities Resource Community. This inventory is free and is based on Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences.

Depending upon your connection speed, the inventory should take 10-15 minutes and may provide some interesting insights.--Dawn Wright

23. YourName dot Explain. Introduce yourself and tell us about how or why you have the name you have, e.g. you were named after a relative or a parent's best friend. It could be your first, middle or nickname.--Angelia Bendolph

24. Good things come in Threes.
List your three favorite web sites.
2) List your three favorite activities.
3) List your three favorite people. --Carol Bates

25. Kiersey Temperament Sorter. This personality test is derived from a similar test called the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Please post your result and respond to two others in the class, someone similar to you and someone with a completely different result. --Piti Kanjanapongpaisal and Jane Wimberg


IV. Resources:

To visit the eCollege Instructional Design Tutorial 2004 you must login to
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Consider this article at ASTD's Online Magazine All About E-learning.

Special Thanks to: Advanced Instructional Design (ISD 622) University of South Alabama Summer 2002 and Summer 2003 online participants and instructor, Dr. Brenda Litchfield.