1 Icebreakers

Your Zoom meetings will have a better chance of being active if you can get discussion going with a subject that students feel connected to or already know. The icebreakers below ease students into a bigger, more robust discussion by inviting students to share their perspectives in small groups,  before engaging with the whole class.

In this section:

Sitting on [word] cloud nine – Top Hat word clouds

Similar to “On a Scale of…” (below), word clouds offer a fast and low-impact way to gather student responses to a prompt, then display those for everyone to see. You could keep things light (e.g., “What’s your mood today?”) or get students thinking about the topics for that class (e.g., “What is one word to summarize the reading?”). Top Hat offers an easy platform for constructing word clouds; however, unless you’re already using Top Hat, you should contact your campus teaching center for alternative tools for creating word clouds.

Note: If you are not already using Top Hat for engagement and/or assessment, see the “Top Hat” page in IU’s Tool Finder for more information.
  1. Top Hat (prep): Log in to Top Hat and create a Word Answer question.
  2. Zoom (live): Share your Top Hat presentation screen.
  3. Top Hat: Present the Word Answer question that you prepared. Select Responses, then Show Word Cloud.
  4. Debrief/discuss responses, especially noting the convergence (larger words) and divergence (smaller words).


Say it in Pictures – Breakout Rooms

Say it in Pictures gives students a chance to work together as a team to solve a problem that, although straight-forward, offers a great deal of creativity and complexity. Groups can approach the solution a number of different ways, giving the instructor a chance to debrief on students’ products, the process they went through, or some combination of the two. The prompt given below, that groups have to find images that best explains IU to space aliens, can be easily modified to suit whatever subject or theme the instructor is presenting on that day. For example, at the beginning of the school year a prompt might be, “As a team, find 3-5 images that explains what kinesiology (or macroeconomics, rhetoric, or organic chemistry) is to someone who knows nothing about it.”

  1. (prep): Add the following prompt to your presentation materials:
    The good news: Aliens have finally landed!…at IU?
    The bad news: They don’t speak Earth languages.
    Goal: As a team, pick 3-5 images to best explain IU for our “guests.”
  2. Google Slides (prep): Create a Google Slide deck, and paste the prompt on the first slide. Create one slide for each group you plan to have, labeling each slide “Breakout Room 1,” “Breakout Room 2,” etc.
  3. Google Slides (prep): Change the Share settings so “Anyone in this group with this link can edit” and set the group to Indiana University. Copy the link.
  4. Zoom (live): Display the prompt and explain that they will be working in groups in breakout rooms for x number of minutes.
  5. Paste the Google Slide link in Chat. Also paste website links where they can find images, such as https://stock.adobe.com, https://images.iu.edu, or https://unsplash.com.
  6. Send students to breakout rooms for 5-10 minutes.
  7. Debrief by opening the Google Slides and sharing your screen. Ask groups to explain their choices and/or their work process (e.g., did they divide and conquer or search together?).


“What is your favorite…?” – Virtual Backgrounds

Seurat painting

An easy way to overcome some of the initial fear of talking and to build rapport, especially at the beginning of term, is to ask your students to choose a virtual background that answers a prompt then break students into small groups, so they can explain their choices. For example:

  • Art Appreciation: What is your favorite work of art or artist?
  • Astronomy: What celestial body or astronomical event most excited you when you were a child?
  • Statistics: What statistic has most surprised/informed you in the past week?

  1. Give students the “What is your favorite…” prompt during your Zoom meeting.
  2. Tell students that they will have 3 minutes to locate an image that “answers” the prompt. They need to post this as their virtual background in Zoom.
  3. Send students to breakout rooms in groups of 2 or 3 to discuss their responses for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Close the breakout rooms and ask a few students to volunteer to explain their background.
  5. Follow up in Canvas: Create a discussion with the initial prompt as the directions, and ask students to post their images with their explanation and then respond to at least 2 other posts.
Note: Older computers may not have the system requirements for virtual backgrounds. In this situation, students could share their screens instead.



“What is your top 5…?” – Virtual Backgrounds

With this icebreaker you get students talking by asking them to respond to a prompt (e.g., “Who do you think are the five most influential women in US history?” or “What are the five greatest threats to…”) by creating a text-based virtual background. Follow up discussions could include why the responses were either so similar or so different.

  1. Canvas: Assign students to submit an image that answers your “top-5” prompt. An easy place to create this is in PowerPoint: PC users can save a single slide as an image; Mac users can take a screenshot. The image should be 16:9 (i.e., widescreen).
  2. Canvas: Send a message or announcement informing students that they will need to set their “top-5” image as their virtual background. Provide this Zoom Help Center link for Using Virtual Background.
  3. Zoom: Send students to breakout rooms in groups of three or four and ask the groups to discuss for 2-3 minutes why they chose what they did .
  4. Zoom: Close the breakout rooms and ask students to find similar responses in their classmates’ backgrounds and discuss as a whole class: “What is it about [x] that multiple people included it for their background?”
  5. Follow up in Canvas: Create a discussion where everyone will post their image and explain their choices.
Note: Older computers may not have the system requirements for virtual backgrounds. In this situation, students could share their screens instead.


Affinity Grouping – Breakout Rooms

seated small group

Affinity grouping helps students identify similarities between each other, work collaboratively, and defend a position. It has the flexibility of being serious or fun, depending on your prompt.

  1. (prep) Determine a prompt (e.g., “The best season of the year is…” or “The psychological theory I most ascribe to is…”)
  2. Zoom (prep): Create breakout rooms (using Breakout Room pre-assign), and name them according to the “options” in your prompt (e.g., “spring; summer; fall; etc.” or “psychodynamic; behaviorism; cognitive; etc.”)
  3. Zoom (live): Open breakout rooms and give students the prompt. Tell them to choose the breakout room that best answers the prompt for them.
  4. Inform students that they will have 5 minutes to discuss why their choice is the “best” or “most accurate.” Have one student in each breakout room be the recorder; they should create a document (e.g., Google docs) and share their screen with the group as they record their group’s ideas.
  5. Close the breakout rooms after 5 minutes, and ask each group to report out to the whole class and share their screens.
  6. Debrief: Consider sharing the numbers of students in the different breakout rooms and having a discussion about the implications of that breakdown.



Low-tech, fun, and silly, Onomatopoeia-ball takes the instructor out of the driving seat while students break through initial shyness by calling each other’s names. Combine this with NameCoach, and you can set a more inclusive tone for an interactive classroom.

  1. Canvas: Create a NameCoach assignment. Inform students that you expect them to listen to how their classmates pronounce their name because they’ll be talking to their classmates throughout the course.
  2. Zoom (live): Tell students that they will be throwing around a virtual “ball” to their classmates at the beginning of class. To throw the ball, students have to make a sound (e.g., “whoosh,” “zzzzz,” “vroom”) then say one of their classmate’s names. Anyone who has not been called should have their hands up in their video, to indicate that they’re ready to catch the virtual ball.


A Very Serial Story

You can use this activity as an icebreaker; a casual, informal, just-in-time assessment; or even as a review. Students make a story or describe a process, one sentence at a time per person.

  1. Begin a story or process (e.g., “Once upon a time…,” or “The first step in the citric acid cycle…).
  2. Call on a student to continue the story/process after you finish the first sentence. Have that student say the next sentence then call on another student and so on until the story/process is done.


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Zoom to the Next Level: Active Learning in the Virtual Classroom Copyright © by Digital Education Programs and Initiatives - Indiana University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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