Ice-breakers are an introductory activity during which students can come to know one another. They help set the tone for the course or unit of activity. In an ice-breaker, an activity is given to the students, which helps guide then to disclose information to other students and create a proper learning set.
For what are Ice Breakers used?
They can serve many purposes from facilitating introductions, to prior knowledge assessment, to several other reasons outlined below and others that have probably been inadvertently omitted. Also note that a single ice breaker could easily fall into several of the categories. They are not intended to be mutually exclusive, and you should design or choose activities that meet all of your intended needs.
- Facilitating Introductions – When groups first come together, interactions and discussions can be hindered by timidness, a lack of understanding the norms of the group, and/or simple unfamiliarity among other possibilities. Ice breakers can be used to create familiarity within the group and ease everyone into the group process. The desired end result is a more open discussion forum and pleasing environment within the group in which the group process can continue.
- Prior Knowledge Assessment – One pedagogical advantage of using ice breakers is that they provide the instructor an opportunity to assess student prior knowledge. They can then lead to the identification of individual needs within the group while also introducing everyone and helping to create a healthy group environment as with facilitating introductions.
- Environment Creation / Fostering Group Unity– The environment has already been mentioned in each of the above uses. A primary purpose of ice breakers can be to help create an open environment in which all participants are willing to open up and participate. Participants need to be encouraged to open up to one another and relax. The introduction and the method by which the ice breaker is carried out can also be designed to encourage a break down of status/race/gender/etc. barriers that may pre-exist in the group. As members of the group get to know one another for better or worse, a form of group unity develops, especially in situations in which a common goal both exists and is known by all.
- Topic Segues – When starting a new topic, ice-breakers can be created to introduce the topic. Often, some form of prior knowledge activity can be used to this end. These are also particularly useful when the members of the group already know each other by one means or another.
- Preparation of Participants – Many learning environments (and this concept is particularly true in online education) require some form of introduction in order to be fully utilized by the participants. By structuring the ice breaking activity into the learning environment or course management system, students can get to know one another while getting to know the course delivery method.
- Energizers – Some ice breakers are designed simply to energize the group of participants. Although less common in an online course where there is unlikely to be a physical task to perform, they can still be very useful in face-to-face workshop environments for second day/morning activities to help wake up everyone.
Choosing an Ice Breaker
When choosing an ice breaker there are 3 questions to keep in mind. First, what are your goals (instructional and group goals)? Second, who is your audience (including their reasons for being there and personal goals)? Third, is the ice breaker connected to its purpose?
The first consideration when choosing an ice breaker is the purpose of that ice breaker. Earlier, it was noted that ice breakers can have many purposes. Determine what your goals are, and then you can connect the activity to the goal.
Next you have to look at your audience. If you are working with a group in which everyone already knows one another, then a get to know you exercise wouldn’t serve much purpose other than to take up time. An alternative activity should then be considered. Likewise, if you are working with an audience that could potentially have a good level of prior knowledge, the ice breaking activity might be designed to probe this knowledge so that the instruction could be modified to best serve the students.
Finally, make sure that the ice breaker you choose is actually connected to the intended purpose of the ice breaker. Not all ice-breakers work for all intended ends. For example, a sing-along activity that might be useful as an energizer would serve little function towards everyone getting to know each other by name unless the sing-along activity also incorporated name games. Then the activity would serve a dual purpose, with one of those being the intended purpose and the other possibly being beneficial in the given context.
Additional things to Consider
How many people will participate? Some activities work better for small groups and others for larger groups. For instance, a name game exercise involving memorization of terms becomes difficult for the participants when the group exceeds 9 people in size.
How much time can be allotted? Some activities take longer than others. If you only have 5 minutes (which will rarely be enough time and 15 would be a more appropriate minimum), then you have to plan an activity or choose one that can be completed in the time available.
Where will the activity take place? For online education, the activity will likely take place in some form of online discussion forum. Therefore, only activities that can make use of a text based forum should be chosen.
Goals and Objectives
After completing an ice-breaking activity with full participation, students will:
- feel more comfortable and less isolated in the distance education environment,
- have a chance to try out learning management system features in a low stakes activity,
- be encourages to participate more in the classroom, and
- begin interacting with other students.
Materials and Resources
What needs to be prepared in advance by the teacher? The assignment description. In some cases, background readings may be necessary. Students will need access to tutorials on the use of the appropriate synchronous or asynchronous tool used in conducting the ice-breaking activity.
What does the student need to bring to the lesson? The willingness to open up to other students in a course. In some cases, background readings may be necessary.
Guiding Questions for this Activity
Depends on the overall purpose of the activity, but a general guiding question would be, how well will the students be able to interact with one another during this course.
Activity Outline and Procedure
At the beginning of a course, students are asked to complete an activity. The directions are provided in an obvious location and may be linked to an initial welcome message from the instructor. They can be done synchronously or asynchronously. Prior to performing the activity, students may need instructions on using the appropriate synchronous or asynchronous tool.
- Performing this activity in a synchronous session to start off the course can help loosen up students mood and provide them the opportunity to get used to the tool during a low stress activity. Troubleshooting technical difficulties are less stressful during a fun activity where time is not an issue and other students are present to help or co-miserate.
- Linking an ice-breaking activity to the actual content is a good way to meet two objectives with one activity. See the second example link above for such an activity.
- To motivate students and start the course on a positive note, provide a modest number of points toward the course grade through this activity.
What accommodations may be needed for students with disabilities or other special needs? In general, this assignment will have few accommodations, but this may change as the nature of the chosen activity changes, therefore, the instructor will have to take this under consideration as developing the activity for use in an online context.
An icebreaking activity would normally be the first thing that students perform. It might even happen before looking at the course syllabus in order to set the tone for the rest of the course.
Ideas for Activity Evaluation and Teacher Reflection
How did the students like the lesson? End of semester evaluations should ask about the usefulness of such activities. Ideas for improvement may be suggested. Although points may be assigned for participation in the ice-breaking activity, it is not normally formally assessed.