Four Ice-breaker Activities for Virtual Classrooms

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

As we start to think ahead to the new academic year, and plan to teach and facilitate learning using online, hybrid or blended approaches, we need to find new ways to get our students working together. This might mean students meeting each other for the first time, and that’s a different experience online than in person. We’ve all had experiences of cringe-worthy ice-breakers that make everyone feel more awkward than encouraged, but here are four that I think work well and are conducive to students getting to know each other. 

1. Where are you joining from?*

Help your students appreciate the diversity in the class, and raise a talking point, by asking them to share either where they are joining the session from, or where their home town is by marking it on a shared map. Here’s how to do this with Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, but similar functionality is available on other platforms: 

  • Add a Map of the UK or the world to your slides (see downloads below), then save your slides as a PDF file.
  • In Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, use the Share Files option (Collaborate Panel > Share Content > Share Files) to share your PDF slides with your students.
  • Turn on the whiteboard tools for participants (Collaborate Panel > Settings > Session Settings, check ‘Draw on whiteboard and files’). Your participants will then see a pencil tool at the top of their screen, above the slides.
  • Ask your participants to use the pencil to mark either their home town, or the location where they are joining the session from on the map.
If you are going to continue presenting slides after this activity, remember to turn off the ‘Draw on whiteboard and files open’ for your students, to prevent unwanted/accidental additions to your slides! 

2. Picture Yourself

Help your students to introduce themselves in a breakout session, by choosing photos as a prompt. This helps to shift the focus away from the student themselves, and so brings shyer students into the conversation more naturally. 

  • Share a Google Jamboard with your students – either one Jamboard per group, or, if you have fewer than 20 groups, one Jamboard with 20 frames and ask each group to use the frame corresponding to their group number. (If you don’t have access to Jamboard, you could use Google Slides or PowerPoint 365 set to allow anyone with the link to edit it).
  • Ask each student to copy and paste a photo that represents them onto their group’s board/slide. This could be a picture of a hobby, sport they enjoy, place they are from, somewhere they have visited, their pet, family, etc. Let the students choose, so that they share something they are comfortable with. They don’t need to upload a personal photo – a quick Internet search to find something is fine.
  • Once they have pasted in their image, the group should take it in turns to introduce themselves to their group, explaining why they chose their image.

3. Virtual Selfies!

Get your students working together and being creative by challenging them to take a team selfie in which they are interacting with each other in some way. Creative options might include linking hands across frames, a team pose, holding an object from their desk, showing something from a country they've visited, etc – but I leave this up to the students.

  • Tell the students to turn on their webcam in their breakout rooms
  • In the ‘Gallery’ view, where all the cameras are shown side-by-side, challenge the students should think of a creative composition where they are interacting with each other, and then take a selfie!
  • To capture the selfie, use the ‘Print Screen’ key on Microsoft Windows, or Command+3 on a Mac.
  • You could ask the students to paste their screenshots into a collaborative space so that you can share them with the whole group after the breakout rooms, let them use the shot to personalise their project submission, or even offer a prize for the most creative group.

4. Thinking Logically

Give your students a logic puzzle to solve, working collaboratively with each other. There are lots of puzzles freely available online, but make sure that it is possible for the students to solve it in the time available, and not so easy that every group will finish really quickly (and make sure you’ve solved it yourself, so you’ve got the solution!).

Here’s one example that works well: 

I hope you find these ideas useful in your own practice – do let me know in the comments. And if you have a creative idea for an ice-breaker for use in a virtual context, please share it in the comments below.


*My use of this task was inspired by an excellent webinar on resilience with Heather Wright, Advance Performance, who used it to highlight the global spread of participants.

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  1. Another one that works really well is using linkedin slide-share with random terms! Get's some fun presentations and helps ice-break since they tend to be quite silly, but also great for presentation skills!