Icebreakers in Talis Elevate


Introduction to icebreakers 

As with any new methodology, technology, or technique you apply in your teaching, it's important to ensure that your students are given the opportunity to explore themselves how to engage and how to find their space within activity. This is particularly important right now as students are joining courses with very different perceptions of Higher Education, different sets of communicative, interpersonal and literacy skills. (Kavanagh et al, 2011) 

A common approach for introduction of new approaches is through icebreakers. This guide gives some examples of icebreaker activity you can apply in your teaching 

Icebreaker activities 

Annotate the module guide 

Helping students understand the fundamentals of the module, the content, and the assessment requirements as early as possible is crucial, yet we regularly observe students missing the critical points at assessment. Providing your students with an opportunity to 'read and annotate together', you're creating a safe space for students to develop a sense of agency and voice. There's a number of ways to approach this activity 

  • Ask students to signpost to any literature they've engaged with already, relating to weekly subject matter. Encourage students to provide additional detail/instruction on why this is a resource others should seek out as well 
  • Highlight any areas of concern, or areas that may be seen as unclear relating to the assessment. ask your students to pose questions early relating to the assignment requirements. Encouraging anonymity here, particularly in early periods in the semester, is recommended 
  • Gather feedback. Is your module guide a contract or a discussion point with your students? Ask your students to review your module guide for areas of ambiguity, after all, seeing the guidance through a student lens will almost certainly highlight some areas for change or adjustment.

Guidance for you 

  • Pose guided questions throughout the module guide in advance of any activity from your students, to help kickstart discussion 
  • Highlight anonymity features. Some students will not have the confidence to publicly contribute in the early stages of the module 
  • Detail your role in this space in advance. For example, will you respond to every question, or is this a 'student space' that you simply keep oversight on? Either is fine, just let your students know! 
  • It's important to revisit the annotated module guide throughout the term to ensure this stays as a living document. If things have changed from the initial annotation round, highlight this. It's also worth revisiting to give students a focussed opportunity to reflect on any previous misunderstandings, and how that's evolved throughout the module. 

Kalir (2020) has published some valuable insights into the value of 'annotate the syllabus' on his blog here

Introduce the subject matter from a different lens 

Whilst you will have a very clear understanding of the module and the subject matter, many of your students may not. Providing an introduction to the module in an alternative format, with the goal of sparking discussion can be a good vehicle for engaging students in discussion and debate around related subject matter. 


  • Provide a YouTube video relating to the module subject matter. Dr Fran Garrad-Cole from Bangor University provided students with a video for discussion on Freudian theory, to build critical thinking around empirical studies and the relation in modern society 


  • Present an alternative perspective on the module content. Is there debate over what's correct on a subject? Turn that into a discussion topic early on 
  • Share some current news relating to the subject matter for relatable discussion 
  • Share something controversial. Is there a talking point around your subject that students' may not be aware of, or have polarising opinions on? Turn this into an activity to highlight the differing perceptions early (again, anonymity may be a valuable capability here).  

Guidance for you 

  • Provide students with a time limit in which to undertake activity. For icebreakers, this should ideally be undertaken synchronously in first weeks of term
  • Build on the narrative. You're asking students to annotate and discuss, but that doesn't restrict discussion to within Talis Elevate. It's important to build on the conversation within a classroom environment. Focus on themes of discussion and expand on these in your lecture/seminar space. 
  • Encouraging use of the 'agree' function can give you a tally of shared opinions. Once students have annotated the resource, ask them to review their peers contributions and agree with the one they feel most aligned with. If they'd like to expand the discussion, encourage replies. 
  • Encourage discourse. Students can @mention their peers to bring them into threads of specific conversation. 
  • If you are discussing sensitive subject matter, make sure you are describing what 'good' discussion/debate looks like. If the content could be triggering, maybe consider this for a later discussion topic on the module, and badge the subject matter effectively 

Gauge students perceived knowledge and understanding at different points 

Gaining an understanding of your students perceived knowledge and understanding on the subject matter is important, especially early in the module. Using Talis Elevate, you can gather insight from students through image annotation using a variety of approaches.

Ask students to mark their level of perceived competence on the subject matter on a matrix like this. Annotate with detail on why they positioned themselves here. 



Using Mood scales

Gauge your students feelings about the module, the assessment, or general feelings about studying at this point in time. There are  a number of different 'emotion scales' that can be used, with some examples here.

    • Don't be afraid to have a bit of fun with this, like the example below. 
    • It's important to ask your students why they feel like this, or how you/the course group can help 
    • return to this activity again later in the term, either on a new scale or the same one. Ask students to reflect on what's changed and again, what the course community can do to help with any challenges. 

Have a bit of fun

If you're introducing a new tool, the activity you undertake could just be a bit of fun. Suzanne Faulkner from Strathclyde University introduced Talis Elevate's image annotation functionality by playing head shoulders knees and toes, as she'd be making extensive use of the image annotation capability for analysis and annotation of x-rays throughout her module. You can find out more about that here 



Icebreakers can be a valuable approach to introduce tools, techniques, and skills to your students early. These can also be a useful way for you to gauge feeling, perception, or potential limitation from your learning community.

Whilst icebreakers are valuable as a starting point on your module, extending these throughout your modules can be particularly useful especially if you're seeking to understand change in perception, understanding, or emotion, as detailed above. This is further detailed by Barrett (2019)

If you'd like to discuss in more detail any icebreaker activities, or have any ideas to share, please get in touch.



Barrett, A., 2019. Extended Icebreaker. In English Teaching Forum (Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 33-35). US Department of State. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs, SA-5, 2200 C Street NW 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20037.

Kavanagh, M., Clark-Murphy, M. and Wood, L., 2011. The first class: Using icebreakers to facilitate transition in a tertiary environment, [online], available at <> [accessed 06/01/21]

Kalir, M., 2020. Annotate Your Syllabus 3.0 [online], available at <> [accessed 06/01/21]

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