Connecting Before We Can Physically Connect: Online Icebreakers to Use for the First Day of Class

Toast popping out of a toaster

I would venture to say that many of us have faced the situation where we are either teaching our classes in a hybrid format, or our first few weeks of classes are held online before in-person instruction begins. One of the topics on which almost all college instructors can agree is that the first day of class is the hardest. Throw in having to conduct the first class using an online platform and the difficulty level associated with the inaugural course session seems to increase tenfold. The following offers online icebreaker ideas for the first day of class which can help demonstrate your course is inclusive, engaging, and centered on students as learners, enabling in-person instruction to commence seamlessly.

Roll out the welcome mat

On the first day of class, consider having students to do a few things to ensure inclusivity. First, ask that students check their screen name to be sure it includes their preferred name. I often have a student whose display name is “Randy’s iPad” when their name is actually Michael, or Jennifer when they prefer to be called Jen. I want to call each student by name from the first day of class to show them they are valued. Conducting the first day of class online actually provides an advantage since being online can eliminate having to ask students what they want to be called. Additionally, you can invite students to include their preferred pronouns as part of their screen name display to reinforce commitment to creating a comfortable and inviting learning space.

I also provide students with a link to a Google Form that has been created before class which provides them with the following survey:

  1. What are the top three strategies teachers of your courses have used to help you be successful?
  2. What are the top three strategies teachers of your courses have used that have NOT contributed to your success?
  3. Are there ways in which the technology and materials used for your courses could be made more accessible?
  4. What do you expect to see in an inclusive classroom?
  5. What do you NOT expect to see in an inclusive classroom?
  6. What are the rules of engagement we should adopt for this class that will help create an inclusive learning environment?

Ask students to turn off their cameras for 10 minutes and answer the survey, and then turn their cameras back on when time is up. I also choose to explain that I have turned off the option of collecting students’ email addresses when they submit their responses so they can be open with their thoughts. Summarize the responses before the next class meeting and share them with the class, and then practice the suggestions throughout the course.

I’d like to propose some toast

This activity is adapted from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk, “An Introduction to Systems Thinking and Wicked Problem Solving.” I like to conduct this activity as the absolute first thing I do on the first day of class. Placing students in a state of disequilibrium makes for great conversations about the point of this activity after it is complete. As soon as everyone enters the class meeting space simply say, “Take three minutes and draw a picture of how to make toast. That is, without using any words, explain how to make toast to someone who has never made it before🍞.” After time is up, ask students to share their drawings one by one by holding them up to their camera. Then, place students randomly into breakout rooms of four to five participants and place the following questions in the chat for each group to discuss (make sure they are prepared to share their group’s answers when the whole class comes back together):

  1. How are your group members’ individual illustrations similar?
  2. In what ways do your group members’ individual illustrations differ?
  3. Which illustrations are clearer, and why?
  4. Which illustrations contain surprises, and what are the surprises?
  5. Which is the one illustration your group feels best illustrates how to make toast, and why?

After 10 minutes, close the breakout rooms and have groups share their answers to the questions. Then, play the actual TED Talk (available at Lead the class in a discussion about the importance of a diversity of opinions, the value of different interpretations of the same topic, and the merit of working together to collectively synthesize meaning. Reinforce these understandings as the course progresses.

Goodwill hunting

I always email my students before the first day of class to welcome them to the course, to provide them with the link to our online meeting platform, and furnish them with a copy of the course syllabus. In this email I also ask students to conduct a personal scavenger hunt and come to class on the first day with the following items to share:

  1. Something warm (if teaching class in the spring since the semester starts when it is cold) or something that keeps you cool (if teaching class in the fall since the semester starts when it is warm)
  2. A meaningful photograph
  3. A furry friend
  4. Something within your arm’s reach at all times
  5. Something edible
  6. Something science-y/math-y/literature-y/etc. depending on the content of the course
  7. Your favorite song that would be appropriate to play in the classroom

Have each student share their items by holding them up to their camera. Ask students to discuss which of the items on their list illustrates who they are the most and why. To students’ initial surprise, I play a piece of the song they name in number 7 when I conduct this activity with my classes. I also share my own list and explain that number 7 is due to my love of music and the numerous concerts I have taken my children to. It is important to do some type of first day activity to connect with students on a personal level as their instructor and foster a good relationship for the entire course. I always make note of each student’s list and do my best to refer to things on each list at some point in the course to further foster a connection with them as individuals.

Dr. KB is an associate professor, the associate chairperson, and the director of accreditation and assessment for the Department of Education at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Dr. KB holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a masters in curriculum and instruction, and has nine teaching licenses. They teach numerous teacher licensure courses and they are passionate about helping future teachers gain the skills inherent in effectively teaching a diversity of students.