Research consistently shows that in an online environment, it’s especially important to create a sense of community to keep students engaged and to limit their feelings that they’re alone (Tayebinik & Puteh, 2012). Icebreaker discussion forums are particularly effective for this purpose because of their ability to set the tone for the course and build relationships early in a term. This article discusses the benefits of icebreaker forums and some techniques for implementing them in your online course.
Why Icebreaker Discussion Forums?
Icebreaker discussion forums serve to break down the sense of anonymity and isolation that can occur naturally in online education. By introducing a more personal, lighthearted discussion at the beginning of the course, you will experience the following benefits:
You enhance motivation.
Icebreaker forums allow you to learn about your students’ unique interests, backgrounds, and motivations. When you learn about your students, you gain valuable information on how to enhance their motivation in your course. Try to remember what students posted in the icebreaker activity when you respond to their posts in subsequent, more academic discussion forums. For example, in a political science course, if a student shares that he or she lives in a hotly contested electoral district, you might ask the student about his or her experience throughout an election cycle. The more you can bend your course’s content to address your students’ interests, the more value they’re likely to find in the course.
You establish presence.
Establishing your presence in the classroom will help students feel more connected and thus more engaged in the course. In an icebreaker discussion forum, you can share personal or professional information about yourself that students might not learn during typical instruction. Even sharing small things like the ages of your children or your favorite foods can help you be more relatable and create connections with your students.
You build community.
Icebreaker forums are an ideal way to begin the process of building community among students. For example, if you plan to assign group work or establish study groups later in the course, icebreaker forums can be a great place for students to “meet” and establish commonalities that they can later build on when they work together.
In addition, icebreaker forums may even offer networking opportunities, given the broad demographics of the online classroom. For example, if a student shares that he or she used to work for a particular company and another student is interested in that company, the two students can make a valuable professional connection.
Icebreaker Discussion Forum Techniques
With these benefits in mind, you can use three primary approaches to create your own icebreaker discussion forum: You can pose questions, create an introduction activity, or set up a café-style forum. Regardless of the format you choose, you should require participation in the discussion forum to ensure that all students have an opportunity to get to know each other—and you. However, you may want to make the point value lower than typical discussion forum responses because you will likely not be holding your students to the same rigorous academic standards.
The most basic structure for an icebreaker forum is to simply ask a question. It could be something related to the course, such as why students decided to take the course, what experience they might already have in the field, or what they’re most looking forward to learning and why.
Or you could be a little more creative based on the course’s subject matter. For example, you could ask political science students to choose a politician they most identify with and explain why. Or you could ask computer science students about what app, program, or game they would code if they had the time and expertise.
On the even more creative end of the spectrum, you could ask students what super powers they would choose or what objects they would take to a desert island, or ask them to introduce themselves from their pet’s perspective (Academic Partnerships, 2013; “Introductory Activities,” n.d.).
A step more complex from posing a question would be to create a structured introduction activity. For example, you can ask students to create a presentation containing a list of words that they think describe them and why, or five pictures that they think best represents who they are (University of Wisconsin, n.d.). If your course involves starting a blog or other social media account, you could have students get their feet wet using these programs to create an introduction post about themselves (and then share these to the forum, of course).
You can encourage students to interact immediately by having them interview one another and report their findings back to the discussion forum, in effect introducing each other rather than themselves (Dai, 2007). You could also assign an introduction scavenger hunt. For example, you could create a list of characteristics or experiences that the entire class must review together to see which student or students matches each category. Or have students review one another’s introduction posts and find things they have in common with one another (“Introductory Activities,” n.d.).
A café-style forum is “a place to get to know peers and perhaps the instructor without worrying about the degree to which each comment relates to the topics of the course” (University of Wisconsin, n.d.). Unlike other types of icebreaker forums, a café forum is meant for students to use beyond the first week of class, whether to talk about off-topic subjects or share study tips. Café forums can build community and help students feel less isolated because they can see where their peers are struggling and help one another throughout the course. It also gives you an opportunity to take the “pulse” of how students are doing in the class and pivot if necessary. This is the sort of interaction that happens organically in a face-to-face classroom, but that you must purposefully cultivate in an online course.
Note that a café-style forum is different than a news forum. News forums are a one-way form of communication from the instructor to the students, such as to make course announcements. If you have any essential course information you need to communicate to students, make sure to use the news forum rather than a café-style forum because students can opt to unsubscribe from e-mail notifications from café forums and might not see all information posted there.
As Donovan (2015) points out, “Online learning communities can be academically and personally transformational when intentionally created, fostered, and sustained by all involved.” It’s the intention that Donovan references that is crucial. If you’re purposeful in building a community of openness and trust, beginning with an inviting icebreaker discussion forum, you can help students feel connected even though you may never see one another’s faces or hear one another’s voices. Show students that you’re human and that you care by participating in the forum and sharing about yourself, and encourage them to share with one another as well by requiring and building participation into the forum activity. The learning community that this activity can foster may just be the key to keeping students engaged, supported, and, ultimately, successful throughout your course.
Academic Partnerships. (2013, June 17). 3 easy ideas for student introduction assignments. Retrieved from http://facultyecommons.com/3-easy-ideas-for-student-introduction-assignments/
Dai, M. (2007, December). 10 ways to engage students in an online course. In Online classroom: Ideas for effective online instruction. Retrieved from https://www.hartnell.edu/sites/default/files/llark/online_classroom_newsletter.pdf
Donovan, J. (2015, October 8). The importance of building online learning communities [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.online.colostate.edu/blog/online-education/the-importance-of-building-online-learning-communities/
Introductory activities. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/lsn/OnlineFacilitator/introductory/introact.html http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/lsn/OnlineFacilitator/introductory/introact.html
Tayebinik, M., & Puteh, M. (2012). Sense of community: How important is this quality in blended courses. Proceeding of the International Conference on Education and Management Innovation, Singapore. Retrieved from https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1504/1504.00249.pdf
University of Wisconsin. (n.d.). Icebreaker activities. Retrieved from https://ce.uwex.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IceBreaker.pdf