Icebreakers! (not the gum)

To start off this post, it’s probably fitting to quote a Duran Duran song (1990): “The lasting first impression is what you’re looking for.”

Besides starting with the usual housekeeping on the first day of class, why not set the tone for the course by providing students with a glimpse into the classroom environment as a community of learners, get students to connect with one another, AND do statistics? Look no further than an Icebreaker activity! We present two Icebreakers that can get your class (either in-person or online) off to a great start: Questions on the Back (a classic) and How Old? Visualization

Questions on the Back Activity (Laura Le)

The purpose of the Questions on the Back activity is to allow students to experience statistics in an informal (and fun!) way. And, it can be implemented within in-person (note: does not adhere to the physical distancing guidelines) and online (asynchronous) introductory statistics courses. 

Activity for in-person courses

The start of the activity is to tape a question1 to the back of each student. Students will not know the questions that are being taped on their back, but tell them that the goal of this activity is to collect data (numbers only!) from their fellow classmates to help them figure out what the question is on their back. Now, some of the questions may be easier to figure out, such as “What is your shoe size?”, and other questions may be harder to identify, such as “What is your lucky number?”. 

1Instructor prep prior to class: (1) Create a list of questions where the answer is a number. Here is my running list as a starting point. (2) Print off the list and cut out the questions into little strips of paper. (3) Bring the strips and Scotch tape to class for the activity. (4) Create a slide (or a poster) of the activity’s instructions that can be displayed. Here is my slide for the instructions.

Note: For the remainder of this article, I’m going to refer to the students with the unknown questions on their back as Question Carriers and the students who read the questions and provide an answer as Responders.

At this point, students are asked to walk around the classroom with a writing utensil and something to write on and interact with their classmates. When a student finds a peer, I ask that they introduce themselves and possibly state their program or major. Then, the pair takes turns reading the question on the back of their peer in their head (silently) and providing an answer to the question with only a number and nothing else (e.g., no units). If the question asks “What is your…?”, it is a question about the Responder (and not about the Question Carrier). After collecting responses from all the students in the class (if the class size is less than 20) or after 15 responses (if the class size is greater than 20), students are to find a place at the board (if there is enough room) or use a drawing tool (paper, iPad) and graph the data to help them figure out what question was on their back. 

Once everyone has graphed their data, I ask for volunteers to summarize their results (using the graph as a visual) and to try to guess their question. For those that volunteer, they are the first to be able to see their question on the back. The number of volunteers I have depends on how many minutes are left before class is over. In total, this activity takes approximately 20-30 minutes of class (or longer, depending on how many students you ask to describe their graph and guess their question).

This activity is one of my favorites to kick off the first day of my in-person introductory statistics courses. Why, you may ask?

  1. Speed Meeting: The activity allows students to meet and interact with their peers on a one-to-one basis in a less intimidating, more personal setting than in a large group setting (e.g., going around the room), and they can meet most of their peers (if not all of their peers) in a relatively short period of time. It’s a great way to set the class’s tone as a community of learners.
  2. Element of Surprise: The students are interested and motivated in figuring out what the question is on their back. 
  3. DOING Statistics on Day 1: They are DOING statistics on the first day of class. They are collecting, and possibly organizing, real data, which is a GAISE recommendation and goal for introductory statistics courses. Some are using external cues (variables) beyond the number provided to help figure out their question, such as how long it takes Responders to answer the question or the Responder’s body language. hey are also summarizing data with a graph of their choice, since they are not told what kind of graph to create. 
  4. Informal Assessment: The kinds of plots that are created help me, as the instructor, understand where my students are at in their prior knowledge (specifically, on graphical representations). I have seen all kinds of plots, some more useful than others, from boxplots and histograms to line charts (with the index number on the x-axis and value on the y-axis) and pie charts. 

Activity for online courses

The online version has a similar goal of exploring real data while getting to know other students in the class, but the roles are flipped. Rather than one student trying to guess one question, one student gets a question, collects data on that question from information in their peers’ introduction posts2, summarizes the data with a plot, and creates a one- to two-sentence description of the data (but not the question) to the rest of the class in a Q&A forum. Then, their classmates respond to the post by guessing which question they had from the description of the data. Students are provided a Word document for the Icebreaker activity that includes the instructions for how to complete it. 

2In the Introduce Yourself discussion forum, students are asked to answer five questions (all have numerical answers) about themselves and told that information will be used in a learning activity for that week. Then these questions are placed into the activity and students are “randomly” assigned to one question. 

Since there are only a few questions (approximately five) that are asked of students, the questions will have multiple students supplying a description of the data. However, it is still very insightful to see how each student decides to tell the story of their data. 


Note: I first learned about the Questions on the Back activity from Michelle Everson when I was a graduate student in the Statistics Education department at the University of Minnesota. To be honest, when I initially learned about these “first day” activities as a kick-off to the course, I was not 100% on board. I thought they sounded interesting, they might be fun, but they were a little cheesy (and not just because I’m from Wisconsin). This was before I tried it out in class, thus not realizing its potential for students and for instructors. So give it a go!)

How Old? Visualization Activity (Steve Foti)

This activity was inspired by a conversation I had with Dennis Pearl at USCOTS 2019 about fun things to try in the classroom. He was showing me the Microsoft-powered website,, that will try to guess your age from a picture that you take or upload and describing how he has used it before in the classroom. With a brand new data visualization course coming up in the spring semester, I was especially open to ideas that could be adapted to my course. After playing around with the website and reflecting on our conversation, I developed an activity and piloted it in two different courses, Biostatistical Literacy in the fall and Data Visualization in the Health Sciences in the spring.

The Biostatistical Literacy course is a graduate level service course that typically contains between 20-30 students, most of whom are advanced-degree-seeking medical professionals. The data visualization course is a new MS elective offered by our department that is open to both majors and non-majors, and most recently contained a small handful of students studying biostatistics as well as other health professions. These are the courses I have tried this activity in so far, but I believe it could be used in classrooms of any skill level. 

The basic idea of the activity is to collect data by having each student take multiple selfies (the website utilizes your default camera app) and record the age it guesses each time. With their individual data, students are asked to create a visualization to show some important feature of their data using any means they are comfortable with (e.g. pens, colored pencils, Excel, R). Then, in pairs or small groups, they are asked to think about and discuss ways they might be able to successfully manipulate the algorithm (e.g. putting on/taking off glasses, smiling, changing the angle). Using their idea, students collect more data and add it to their visualization in a way that distinguishes it from the original data. Finally, the data displays are shared with the class and we have brief discussions about them. I typically lead these discussions with questions like, what does this graph show? Does anything about the data stand out to you? Does it look like the attempt to manipulate the algorithm was successful? 

The full activity instructions are shared on our resources page

I enjoy this activity because it is a little bit different than your standard icebreaker. The discussion between students has an element of fun and mystery, and is likely something that they have not worked with before. At the same time, the work they are completing allows them to showcase their creativity and their comfort with graphing and communicating about data. Below are a couple of examples that students in my classes have created through this activity. Not all of them exactly follow the instructions, but are still generally on topic and are interesting to see. 

So far, I have only tried this activity twice in a face-to-face setting. This fall, I will be testing it out in an asynchronous, online version of the biostatistical literacy course. Since we can no longer have a live discussion, I have changed the activity submission to a discussion board format. Students will upload their final graphic and post their conclusions about their data, their graphic, or the algorithm used by the age guessing software. I may also require them to respond to at least one post in an attempt to encourage interaction and full participation in the activity. 

I think this activity lends itself a little better to the face-to-face setting. Here, students are able to interact throughout the process and share their thoughts on how they might manipulate the algorithm. It is more fun, in my opinion, when students can share and laugh about the results of the age guesser, compare ideas for manipulating the algorithm, and be present for the concluding discussion. In the online setting, the students are no longer able to have the same level of interaction, so while the activity still offers some benefit as a statistical activity, it loses some of its credibility as an icebreaker. 

Slack for (A)synchronous Course Communication

Contributing author Albert Y. Kim is an assistant professor of statistical & data sciences. He is a co-author of the fivethirtyeight R package and ModernDive, an online textbook for introductory data science and statistics. His research interests include spatial epidemiology and model assessment and selection methods for forest ecology. Previously, Albert worked in the Search Ads Metrics Team at Google Inc. as well as at Reed, Middlebury and Amherst colleges. You can follow him on Twitter @rudeboybert.

Contributing author R. Jordan Crouser is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Smith College. He is published in the areas of visualization theory, human-computer interaction, educational technology, visual analytics systems and human computation. For more information, visit his faculty page.

Contributing author Benjamin S. Baumer is an assistant professor in the Statistical & Data Sciences program at Smith College. His research interests include sports analytics, data science, statistics and data science education, statistical computing, and network science. For more information, visit his faculty page.

You might have heard of Slack before. But what is it? Is it email? Is it a chat room? Slack describes their flagship product as a “collaboration hub that can replace email to help you and your team work together seamlessly.” In this blogpost, we’ll describe how we’ve been using Slack for asynchronous course communication, as opposed to the synchronous course communications afforded by Zoom and other remote conferencing platforms.

Why do we stress (a)synchronous? The brick-and-mortar constraint of having everyone working at the same time is unworkable under the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, support staff, faculty, and students have suddenly been forced to convert to a remote learning model of education. In order for this model to be successful, flexibility is needed to ensure equitable learning experiences with respect to differences in time zones, suitability of student learning environments, internet access, and many other factors. In order to ensure this flexibility, many instructors are recognizing that some portion of their courses must be delivered in an asynchronous fashion, on top of the synchronous nature of regular lecture and meeting times. 

Before we discuss how we’ve been using Slack, we must explain how Slack is organized.

How is Slack organized?

Slack is organized into workspaces, which loosely correspond to a “team” of individuals (such as a research or special interest group). In our case, this will be an individual course. When using Slack from the Desktop or Mobile app, a list of your workspaces appears in the left-hand vertical menu bar. For example, of the 8 workspaces highlighted in red, we are currently viewing the “220” course workspace:

Within each workspace are channels (identified with hashtags), highlighted here in blue. You can think of channels as forums corresponding to topics. In this example, we have #general (announcements), #questions, and several others. Different stakeholders can join each channel, and channels can be designated public or private as appropriate. Note how the #problem_sets channel has a lock icon, indicating that it is private (to just instructors and graders).

Additionally, within each workspace are direct messages (DMs), highlighted in green. You can think of DMs as group text messages. Unlike with channels, people cannot later “join” these conversations.

What are the benefits of Slack?

Slack’s primary benefit is centralization and organization of communications, which helps to minimize inefficient context switching:

For example, if we want to ignore messages related to the 220 course and focus our attention on the 293 course, we can do so easily. This inherent compartmentalization of communications relating to courses is especially helpful when managing asynchronous communication across multiple courses, the challenges of which have been amplified during the recent outbreak of COVID-19.

Second, Slack facilitates the posing and answering of student questions via channels dedicated to discussion boards. This is a welcome feature of Slack given the importance of (a)synchronous communications in light of COVID-19.

Note that Slack is certainly not the only platform that has such functionality; other platforms include Moodle, Piazza, and Discord

Third, the benefits of Slack increase not only as the number of team members grows, but also as the number of distinct groups of team members grows. For example, this semester’s two sections of Smith College’s SDS/MTH 220 Introduction to Probability and Statistics have 79 students who form 31 term project groups, 2 instructors, 2 lab instructors, 2 graders, and 2 in-class teaching assistants. By carefully constructing both private and public channels and direct messages, we can  localize communications in their appropriate destinations. This is critical at a time where we can’t meet in person, nor can we easily meet at the same time.

Fourth, the more casual nature of Slack interactions versus email reduces instructor/student barriers. For example, less time can be spent choosing appropriate email greetings and signoffs. Additionally, Slack’s use of newer modalities of communication like emojis and GIFs can further facilitate expression at a time when maintaining open communication is paramount.

Other benefits of Slack include (1) seamless transition between Desktop and Mobile interfaces; (2) a growing ecosystem of 3rd party applications to integrate with platforms such as Zoom, GitHub, PollEverywhere, Google Drive, and Dropbox; and (3) unlike Moodle or Piazza, Slack is widely used in industry. While we won’t argue that Slack is a skill, familiarity with it certainly won’t hurt students as they enter the workplace.                   

What are some pitfalls of Slack?

As with any communication platform, Slack has its share of potential pitfalls:

  1. There are cognitive costs associated with switching to Slack-based course communication, and student buy-in can vary depending on (1) general comfort with technology and (2) the use of Slack within other courses at your institution or department.
  2. Notifications settings really matter: students who only use Slack via their browser often miss messages sent between lectures if their email notifications aren’t set. Students who use the Desktop or Mobile applications encounter this issue far less often, but this does require installation of these interfaces.
  3. Since Slack was designed for tech companies rather than for education, it is consequently not FERPA compliant. Thus, certain sensitive communications should not take place on Slack. 
  4. While Slack offers a “freemium” version, it caps access to the most recent 10,000 messages and 5GB of file storage. To exceed these caps, monthly per user fees must be paid. 

When to make the switch

Should you switch to Slack right now (during the COVID-19 pandemic)? Our answer: if you have an existing method that gets the job done, probably not. Switching your communication tool amid the stress currently facing staff, faculty, and students may cause more harm than good. However, you may want to consider the following reasons we think you should use Slack in future courses: 

  • Do you prefer having your communications centralized and compartmentalized?
  • Are there multiple groups to coordinate within your team: instructors, teaching assistants, graders, students, and various groupings thereof?
  • Are you looking for ways to make communication between students and faculty feel more accessible?
  • Does your course involve collaborating on code, either directly or via GitHub?
  • Do other instructors in your department or institution use Slack?
  • Do you hate email?

As your answers to these questions tend toward yes, the case for Slack gets stronger. At our institution, we have been vocal advocates of using Slack in the classroom. The increased importance of (a)synchronous communication brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced our belief in the benefits that Slack can provide for course communication.


As with any large change in workflow, getting started is often the hardest part. To this end, R. Jordan Crouser has created the following quickstart guide for Slack: Getting Started with Slack for (a)synchronous course-based communication. 

Additionally, for a live demonstration of Slack and many of its useful features, check out this video. The content of much of this post is based on Albert Y. Kim’s 2019 Symposium on Data Science and Statistics talk Using Slack for Communication and Collaboration in the Classroom.

Adapting Statistics Instruction for an Online Environment in the Wake of COVID-19

Contributing author Christopher Engledowl is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education and Quantitative Research Methods at New Mexico State University.

The world is currently experiencing unprecedented forced movement from face-to-face interaction to a completely virtual form of interaction. Higher education institutions have quickly made sweeping policy decisions that have, overnight, overhauled the classroom learning environment. These decisions have resulted in many people questioning the kinds of quality that can be expected—especially from instructors who have never taught an online course Simultaneously, many organizations have expanded the capacity of their digital platforms to accommodate the insurgence of people making use of their products for teaching and learning.

For instance, Discord—an application with free voice and text chat originally designed for gamers to interact in real time with one another, read more here—recently increased the capacity for live streaming for up to 50 people for the sole purpose of making it more amenable to online instruction. They also published a blog post about how to use Discord for instructional purposes, including a special pre-organized setup to help streamline the interface for new users.

Just as many others have recently experienced, my institution has recently dictated the movement of face-to-face courses to an online setting in order to practice social distancing and follow government recommendations designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. I am currently in the process of transitioning my face-to-face courses to online format, and I am making use of Discord. In this article, I will showcase how I made use of Discord in a prior online course, what I observed about student interactions, and what students reported about their experiences. I believe Discord can be an effective, and easy to implement, tool for creating quality discourse.

Some Context: Advanced Statistics in College of Education

In the Summer of 2019, I taught a required doctoral level course for an online-only program in a College of Education called Advanced Statistics. This course is comparable to a typical undergraduate level introductory course in statistics. In the pre-requisite course, students are exposed to basic descriptive statistics and visualizations, leading up to a two-sample t-test. Advanced Statistics extends this learning to include ANOVA, ANCOVA, and simple linear regression. The student population ranges in age from 25 to 50, whose only experience with statistics is the prerequisite course, where I have had students tell me that they had never seen a boxplot before! The course is application-based and ends with a small-scale project where students explore their own research question using either their own data, or data from the 2012 PISA—which is used throughout the course.

Because it was an online course, in addition to including the kinds of instructor presence and interaction that have been discussed by John Haubrick on this blog, I also was asking myself: How do I emulate the important student-to-student interaction that would occur in a synchronous, face-to-face setting, as suggested by the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) College Report?

Using Discord to Promote Quality Interaction

What is Discord?

Discord is an application designed with both text and voice chat “channels” within a “server.” The server is the larger space that only invited members can interact within, and it is composed of channels where members chat. Discord text chat channels are free-flowing chat streams. This was highly appealing to me because threaded comments can have the side-effect of conversations only existing in small groups, without ever making their way into the larger classroom discussion. Moreover, because Discord has integrated tagging (using the @ symbol), it makes it easy for everyone to see who is having side conversations, while also allowing others to enter into that same conversation—thus promoting them to the whole group level.

How Can it Promote Discussion?

In the Advanced Statistics course, because the majority of students were teachers and administrators in K–12 schools, this course was managed largely asynchronously. I used Discord as the central place for managing the classroom environment. I regularly posted links to videos on my YouTube Channel and I also posted announcements for the few times I conducted livestreams using a free application called Twitch. Thus, Discord was used for nearly all student-student and student-instructor interaction. To encourage students to get to know one another more, and make discussions feel more authentic, I set up a #general chat channel for them to discuss anything they wanted to, where I would not be monitoring unless I was tagged. I also created a #current-music-jam and #current-reading-interest channel. Many students made use of these channels at different points, and I also shared my own reading and music interests.

The course-specific channels I created to align with course learning goals were #roller-coaster-tycoon (to discuss assignments related to this dataset), #spss-discussion, #research-interests, and #p-values. Channels are very easy to add at a moment’s notice, but these seem to have sufficed for the course and were meant to work toward the GAISE recommendations to “foster active learning” and to “use technology to explore concepts and analyze data” (p. 3). It also supported students as we worked toward the GAISE goals regarding the investigative process, understanding statistical models, and understanding inference (p. 6). Discord supported these goals by providing a space where students could engage in productive discourse with one another to deepen their knowledge. For instance, as can be seen in the two screenshots below, students frequently inserted screenshots of output they were trying to make sense of in order to crowd source whether their interpretations were correct. I largely stayed out of these conversations, and found that many students would enter into the conversations, resulting in dialogic interactions that everyone learned from. Sometimes these conversations would head in an unproductive direction, but because I could see the entire conversation—unlike if it was occurring outside of class or in a group discussion in a face-to-face class where it might be difficult to hear what occurred—I could point directly back to the conversation using tagging—or even just tagging @everyone—or a screenshot and help steer students in a productive direction. This cannot be overstated: Being able to see entire conversations in this way is an incredible advantage over face-to-face discussions. It allows, in a sense, an omniscient perspective—one that everyone in the entire class also enjoys the benefits of.

How Can it Improve Instruction?

On the administrative side of teaching, to encourage participation, I evaluated both the quantity and quality of contributions using a simple rubric. Searching for a student’s username produces a list of every contribution they have made, along with a timestamp and the place in the chat stream where the comment was made—faded in the background. You can also filter contributions by channel. To see the contributions in the context of where they occurred in the chat, a simple click on the background reveals them. This process was very efficient, taking about 2-3 minutes per student.

What Did Students Say About Discord?

In an anonymous poll, I asked students: How useful did you find Discord? On a scale of 1 (Not At All) to 5 (Very Useful), 54% rated it a 5 and 23% rated it a 4. No one rated it below a 3. A follow up item asked students what they liked about Discord, and many responses were things like, “it is very interactive and we’re free to ask any questions we need at any given time” and “nice interactions that you could follow.” When asked what they did not like about Discord, students described issues that would exist even if the courses were face-to-face (e.g., “I couldn’t work ahead because I had to be involved in discussions”). Other responses were simple complaints (e.g., “Another platform”).

Perhaps even more revealing were the comments students gave when asked to compare ways of interacting in the Canvas learning management platform vs. Discord. Many responses included statements such as “Discord is best for discussion in real time” or “Discord seemed easier to follow than discussions on Canvas (and I teach online using Canvas)….seems less formal and more able to operate like a texting stream.” I will leave with this last revealing comment. When discussion turns into “I’ll do it just for the grade,” we have lost a major opportunity to promote deep learning through social interaction:

Discord is best for discussion in real time. Canvas is ok, more for turning in work and such—Posting discussion board responses and getting feedback, it is more assignment based.

Hello, is anyone there? Instructor presence in an online statistics course

Contributing author John Haubrick is an instructional designer and assistant teaching professor for the Penn State Department of Statistics where he supports the teaching and design of the online statistics courses.

With the prevalence of online chat bots and robocalls, we sometimes find ourselves asking: “Are you a machine or a real person?” Students can also experience this when taking an online course with an “absent” instructor. Instructor presence in an online course has been cited in research as a major influence of student satisfaction and engagement, which may impact their ability to learn the course content (e.g., Ladyshewsky, 2013; Gray and DiLoreto, 2016). So what can we do to “show up” to class as an online statistics instructor?

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer,  2000) is one model used to classify the types of instructor presence for a rich educational experience. The framework is based on three types of presence: Social, Teaching, and Cognitive. You can find a large collection of publications and resources related to the CoI framework on the CoI website. In the model, the entire educational experience is the result of the interrelationship (or overlap) of the social, teaching and cognitive presence. Let’s explore each presence and how they might apply to an online statistics course.

Social Presence

Social presence shows that you are a real human teaching the students. Examples of incorporating social presence in an online course include…

Start of the course

  • Post an introductory video to put your face and voice with a name. Share your interests, hobbies, research, and the keys to success in your course.
  • Use an introduction forum to allow everyone to share a thing or two about themselves. Make the prompts interesting and provide various format options. Educational social media platforms like Flipgrid and Yammer provide text, audio, and video options beyond the standard text based discussion boards.

Throughout the course

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence refers to the technical set-up and design of the learning management system and the design of the learning materials that the students engage with (e.g., content, activities, assessments). Examples of integrating Teaching Presence in an online course include…

  • Provide clear directions on how to get started the first time they enter the course.
  • Have contact information, resources, and links for finding help and support. This includes technical support, resources for statistics software, and who to contact (e.g., TAs, instructors, other) and when.
  • Create navigation through the course that is clear and optimized for efficiency.
  • Make expectations and directions clear, thorough, and concise on all learning materials.
  • Offer timely, constructive, and frequent feedback in a variety of formats (text, audio, video). Your LMS might offer built-in or integrated media tools, such as Zoom, VoiceThread, Kaltura or YouTube.  

Cognitive Presence

The cognitive presence determines how students create meaning of the course content. Through activities, assignments, and discussions, the instructor can challenge and lead students through the content. Examples of creating Cognitive Presence in an online course include…

  • Create a reflection journal where students can make their thinking visible. For example…
    • You could set up a 3-2-1 post, where they post: 3 key concepts of the lesson, 2 ways in which they can apply the concept to their life, work, or future career, and 1 challenge or difficulty they are still having.
  • Provide lesson overview videos connecting the new content to prior knowledge or previous lessons. Demonstrate how the new content fits into the big picture of the course (or program). 
  • Have students “make sense” of output from statistical software or results from a research article by asking questions about conceptual understanding rather than procedural knowledge.
  • Have students spot errors in worked examples that might include incorrect calculations, equations, software code, software output, or hypothesis testing conclusions. 

The examples provided are just a sample of the myriad of options available for creating presence in an online course. However, THE most important thing is to show up! Your presence is important. Presence can create a positive learning community that will not only motivate your learners, but you as well.



Ladyshewsky, Richard K. “Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2013. (Crossref), doi:10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070113.

Garrison, D. Randy, et al. Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. 1999. Semantic Scholar, doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6.

Gray, Julie A., and Melanie DiLoreto. “The Effects of Student Engagement, Student Satisfaction, and Perceived Learning in Online Learning Environments.” International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, vol. 11, no. 1, May 2016. ERIC,