Warming up: Using icebreakers and small group work to build learning communities online

The activity

I was involved in the design of learning activities for a new module for first year student nurses. The students had not had the opportunity to form relationships with their peers or faculty as their programme had moved online due to Covid-19. In order for the students to feel engaged as part of a learning community, I encouraged the use of icebreakers during seminars. Some icebreaker activities included showing each other what we were wearing on our feet (I held up my sheep slipper!) or asking each student to say if there was one nice thing they did for themselves over the weekend. Additionally, small group activities (in breakout rooms) were designed so that during each of the seminars, the students had the chance to build relationships by learning together.

Impact on students

In my mid-semester module evaluations, I asked the students if any features of the module had helped them to engage more as part of a learning community to understand if either the icebreakers or small group activities had made a difference to students’ engagement.

The students responded positively, as the following comments illustrate.

  • “Working together in small groups on activities helped me engage and feel part of a learning community.”
  • “Working together in breakout rooms made me feel more comfortable as we got to know each other [and] made me speak out and become more confident.”
  • “Breakout rooms helped me engage more because I am reluctant to speak out in a large group.”

They also said they felt the interactions between lecturers and their peers in whole-group discussions helped them to engage as they got to know one another.

When lecturers share information about themselves (obviously not too personal—for example the dog’s antics are fine!) it allows students to feel more at ease and comfortable with others in the class. Interaction both with peers and lecturers can encourage students’ motivation and engagement and also promotes feeling part of a learning community.

Final notes and advice for readers

For icebreakers, keep it simple and informal. For group activities, contrary to popular belief I’ve found that students like working in small groups! Students may find it awkward at first, but persevere and create regular opportunities for small group work.


How to cite

Foord-Warren, H. (2021) Warming up: Using icebreakers and small group work to build learning communities online. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/warming-up-using-icebreakers-and-small-group-work-to-build-learning-communities-online/. (Accessed: 25 April 2024)

Post Information

Posted in Edition 1, Recipes for Success