Teaching Spotlight – Using a Virtual “Snowball Fight” to Build Community

Slide displayed at beginning of class featuring student skills within the theme of vocalization

Jennifer Klenz and Stella Lee recently used a virtual “snowball fight” to help them get to know their BIOL 234 students. Below, Jennifer describes this activity, the role it has played in building a sense of community in the course, and its connection to another course assignment.

How did you come up with the idea of a virtual “snowball fight”?

I wanted to use an icebreaker at the start of the term to help me get to know the students. Brett Gilley in EOAS told me that in face-to-face teaching he does a “snowball fight”. He puts up a slide and asks students a simple question like: “An unusual skill I have is ___”  or “Something hardly anyone knows about me is ___”. The students write their answers on a piece of paper, crumple it into a ball and throw it at him. He collects them and either makes a big slide with their answers for next class or uses a few of their responses on his first slide to start every class.

I decided to do the same thing virtually with an anonymous Qualtrics survey. I asked student the two questions above plus two more. Their answers were great! So interesting and some were very funny, like “I can put false lashes on perfectly while very drunk”. I have been grouping their responses into themes and sharing some at the start of most classes (see one of the slides pictured above).

How have students responded to this activity?

They are enjoying seeing their answers at the start of lecture. One day I put up a slide about their unusual skills related to the theme of movies and TV shows. Suddenly the students were all creating funny Shrek character avatars for themselves that we could see in the chat window. Stella and I were wondering what was going on and then figured out it was because someone’s unusual skill mentioned that day was “I have a very comprehensive knowledge of animated films, particularly ‘Shrek’ “.

The next day a whole bunch of students decided to be clowns. I think it was because someone said in the chat that the first quiz had made them feel like a clown. Some have remained Shrek characters or clowns and some are still changing related to the things I show them about themselves.

How has this activity impacted your relationship with your students?

It has certainly built a sense of camaraderie. When I ask someone a question in lecture and I am looking at a googly-eyed clown avatar, I have to say, oddly, it makes me very aware there is a vulnerable human trying their best, under difficult circumstances, on the other end.

How else have you used this activity?

The other two survey questions I asked them were related to biology. I asked them to tell me their favourite plant or a plant they think is very unusual and their favourite animal or one they think is unusual. The point of this was that it would start to give them organisms to use when creating their own genetics exam-type problems in another activity they are doing in groups in tutorial.

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