APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Creating an Icebreaker Question for Forums during the Pandemic

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth, Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management

For students, meeting for the first week of an online course can be scary. As an online professor, I often teach courses that do not have a live Zoom room, Google app or other social medium. Live meetings with friends and family are common these days, thanks to our mobile phones and laptop computers.

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These online meetings have become even more prevalent due to the coronavirus pandemic that keeps people separated for health safety reasons. So meeting a student for the first time during Week 1 of an eight-week online class might put even more pressure on that student to feel happy, content and knowing what they are doing taking an online course.

Making Your Students Smile with an Icebreaker Question

It’s during that first week when the teacher can create a safe bond between him and his students in the discussion forum. It is the time to show the students that you are a real person trying to find a common happy moment.  

One method is to ask the students who they really are, not their job title or where they work. Most students come to a first class with that canned introduction all ready to cut and paste in that Welcome to Class or Week 1 Introduction. So ask them instead how to describe themselves in one word as an icebreaker question.

Ask them to have some fun and think carefully about what one word would represent who they are. Ask them to think about what one word might bring a smile to their face or a laugh from their mom or dad, girlfriend or boyfriend, or partner. What one word is so important that you want to claim it for yourself? 

When asking this question, you also want to save that one word in your notes on each student because you will remind them of that one word in the last week’s discussion forum. Ask them if that one word still describes them? You will find out that the word may have changed a bit.

Over my last 10 years of teaching, I’ve found that this silly little game has brought many shy and stressed-out students to see themselves in a new light and to see me as a teacher as someone they can trust.

This Pandemic Has Added New Stresses to Our Online Students

There are many stresses on all of us these days. Whether your students are in the military or are civilians, this pandemic is creating some very confusing and scary stresses. Exchanging a descriptive word like serious, funny, or bossy just might be the opening for a connection between teacher and student as just two people sitting at a table having coffee.

There are many times in an online teacher’s experience when some students are so stressed out they drop out of class. Many of them will use the excuse that they are not fit or ready for college life. They have self-doubt. Experience shows, however, that one way to keep them in school is to create a teacher-student bond.

This pandemic has definitely added new stresses to our online students. While stress does come up in weekly discussions, especially in the opening week’s introduction to each other, changing that topic is useful. That one word request may also bring out some negative words related to a student losing her job, or another to losing a loved one to COVID-19. 

If you are a teacher who teaches around 500 to 600 students a year, you will encounter this negativity at some time. And yes, it is important to exchange feelings of comfort to someone who has lost a job or a loved one, or is just quarantined and cannot work with his team.

In an online discussion forum, the teacher can become a friend, a mentor, a coach and someone with whom to share stressful feelings. But try to be sympathetic and change that student’s outlook with a silly one-word icebreaker question; it can make a big difference to that student.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor. He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia. 

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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