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priscilla-du-preez-3gAiajAfjXI-unsplashIn 2018 we published a brief blog post titled 5 Creative Icebreaker Assignments for the Online Classroom, and to date it’s our most popular article. Which makes a lot of sense – we know from distance education research that the establishment of a vibrant, engaging, and collaborative classroom community lies at the heart of an effective online classroom. One of the first steps in creating that community is an icebreaker or “get to know you” conversation.

Our original article emphasized fun activities that can break the ice. Activities like Virtual Name Tags, where students offer one word that describes their personality, hobbies, or interests. Or the deeper “Childhood Dream” activity where students share their “What I wanted to be when I grew up” stories and how that compare/contrasts to their current career pursuits. While these are super fun and creative, lately I’ve been contemplating a simpler, but perhaps equally or more effective route – the meaningful question.

A little while ago, I had someone ask me (kind of out of the blue as I had just met them) “What is something you want to accomplish this year?” This, obviously, hit differently than the standard “How are you? What is it you do?” And it was a lot more approachable than the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” I was surprised that I had an answer, and that the person listened and offered some supporting wisdom, and it inspired me to be curious and ask about what they wanted to accomplish.

So, rather than activities, I’ve started compiling a list of meaningful questions to ask my online students; approachable questions, helpful in that they are specific and yield a definite – yet weighty – answer. Developing this list is an exercise in empathy. It forces you to consider the questions you would liked to be asked by an online instructor with whom you hope to connect and who you hope sees you as an interested and interesting student. Here are some that I have come up with. I’ve auditioned #1 most recently and it has been received very well and invites a ton of terrific conversation.

Do you have any to add? What is a meaningful question you’d like to be asked – either by anyone wanting to get to know you, an online instructor, or online classmates? Please comment below!

What are you the biggest fan of? This question accomplishes so much. First, it taps into a person’s fandom, something they are intensely passionate about and that they could speak on for hours and hours. When you pose this question to a person, a light comes on. Online, that light is the amount they write, the story they share, and the invitation they offer to share in their fandom – to give that book, or that band, or that show a try. Second, it very quickly says a lot about a person without them having to get personal in ways they may not feel comfortable with yet. Third, chances are in a class full of students there will be someone who is also a big fan of that same thing. This creates friendships and establishes quick bonds. Fourth, this conversation can continue on throughout the class and beyond. For example, I had mentioned in my icebreaker post that I was a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives epic fantasy series. By the end of the class, a student who had just finished the first book in the series replied to my Course Wrap Up email letting me know that she really enjoyed it and that she was excited to read the next!

During the COVID pandemic, what surprised you to have missed? I have not posed this question to an online class (yet) but someone asked me this question early on in the pandemic and my answer said a lot about what I valued. If someone had asked me “What do you value?” I would have had a hard time coming up with an answer, the question being a bit vague and maybe a little overwhelming. But, when asked this way, the answer was immediate, meaningful, and simple to give. It facilitated conversation, curiosity about each other, and, like the fandom question, it stablished a quick bond (“Oh my goodness, I miss that too!”)

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? This question will usually come with a story, and sharing stories is easier to do than writing an answer to a direct question. I often find that when crafting a response to a discussion prompt, students feel a bit intimidated by submitting a careful, acceptable response. But when they can tell a story, smoke comes off their fingers and the writing comes naturally. What a great tone to set for the rest of our discussion! Because this is exactly what we hope to cultivate in our students throughout our class discussions – conversation and critical thinking rather than giving the “right answer.”

Who are you in your family (i.e. The Black Sheep, the Baby, the Oldest)? I teach Personality Psychology and in one of our discussion prompts, students are asked to consider the differences and similarities between their personality and that of their siblings and talk about what influenced those differences/similarities. Students love this question, and often write beyond the minimum length requirement. They talk about the role their birth order plays in their personality development and who they are vs. who their siblings are and how they’ve come to identify with this role, etc. I find that I, as the instructor, like sharing as well. For example, as an oldest I have a lot in common with the other “oldests” in class and we engage in terrific conversation. Given how much success I’ve had with this question as a discussion prompt and how amenable it is to being an “icebreaker”, this may be a great meaningful question to pose in an introduction thread in any online class.

What is the most favorite thing you own? This is another approachable question, the answer to which says a lot about a person without them having to offer too much at the same time. What I like most about this is how it inspires the sharing of photos! I’ve seen a lot of prized souped-up cars, dogs, cats, and pets of all kinds, book jackets, fancy coffee makers, easels and art supplies, etc. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all!

Meaningful questions of this sort tend to be approachable, but they may not be something that all students are comfortable answering. And that’s okay! A simple introduction or bio is perfectly fine. I like to phrase it like this, “Please post a reply letting us know a little about you and your goals for taking this class. If you are comfortable, consider sharing something you are a huge fan of.” That way, students who aren’t comfortable “going there” are off the hook and can simply reply with what they are comfortable sharing.

If you use one of these questions in your online classroom, I’d love to hear about it! Please comment below with your experience.

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