Researchers have found that icebreakers are most effective when they are chosen to fit with the instructor’s teaching style, the abilities and needs of the students, and the specific goals of the class.  If one activity isn’t a good fit; there are a wide variety of other icebreakers to choose from. 

Professor McGraw recommends that instructors carefully think through new icebreaker games to ensure that their descriptions will be clear and that the activity will proceed as intended.  Simply reading directions in advance may not be sufficient; Professor McGraw sometimes even recruits colleagues to test out a new activity before doing it with students. 

Image of students standing in a circle.
The best icebreaker games require nonthreatening interaction and have relatively simple instructions. 

Students are most likely to grow from activities that allow everyone to participate.  For example, when Professor McGraw introduces the game “Stop,” she asks students to “move through space” in whatever way they are most comfortable; asking students specifically to “walk” might not be appropriate for some students.  (It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible.)   

It is helpful to be mindful of cultural and personal perspectives on touching and sharing information. Most activities can be adapted to meet the needs of all students. 

If an icebreaker game isn’t going well, Professor McGraw finds that it works well to stop and re-explain the game, or adjust it as needed. 

Practitioners suggest that icebreakers last long enough for everyone to participate, but it is generally a good idea to stop games if the objective has been achieved or when enthusiasm is starting to wane. 

Students in online or hybrid courses can also learn from icebreakers and other online ensemble building activities.

Students benefit tremendously from a debriefing at the end of an icebreaker game. 

  • Practitioners recommend that instructors first reflect on the activity, then guide students to generalize and make connections, and finally help students to apply this information in some future endeavor. 
  • Instructors can ask questions like “How did the activity make you feel?” or “How does the activity help you to succeed in the course?”  (Answers might include improving communication and problem-solving skills and setting the stage for collaborative, active-learning classwork.)