Make Breakout Rooms Work Better

Decorative: An image of four breakout rooms on a computer screen

Image links to "Breakout Rooms: Best Practices" (for more suggestions).

"Teaching: How to Make Breakout Rooms Work Better" (post) sketches out 10 specific strategies to deal with common Zoom/breakout-room teaching challenges.

  • Each strategy is explained in more depth in the post.

A. Common Challenges with Breakout Rooms

"Without clear roles, specific tasks, and limits on time, chances are many of the [below] problems will surface":

  • "Nobody talks, which is really awkward."
  • "Classmates turn their cameras off or just walk away."
  • "The professor sometimes gives the groups too much time."
  • "When students aren’t prepared, it feels like a waste of time."
  • "If students are unsure what they’re supposed to do or don't understand the assigned reading, then everyone just shuts down."

B. Some Practical Strategies

  • Each strategy is explained in more depth in the post.

1. "Assign roles"

  • "... group leader ... note taker ... the one to report on what the group did when the entire class reconvenes"

2. "Mix things up" 

  • "If you do keep students in the same breakout rooms for a while, ... switch roles to give everyone a chance to take the lead on something."

3. "Use shared docs"

  • "It requires them to document their work, so they have to participate."
  • "It allows them to compare their work with that of other groups." 
  • "[I]t gives the instructor a way to follow along" and do the following:
    • "[S]ee what's happening in real time ... [and] follow along without being intrusive"

    • "[A]dd to the discussion ... and also participate in all the discussions simultaneously"

    • Avoid "the awkwardness of 'popping in' to breakout rooms and unintentionally stifling conversations"

    • See "if a group seems to be going off track ... [and] know it’s time to join in and help out"

    • "[U]se that document ... when [they] reconvene together"

4. "Keep it short" 

  • "[A]ssigning a couple of tasks that take five to 10 minutes makes for an effective experience."
  • "Keeping it focused ... helps."

5. "Except when it’s useful to go longer" 

  • "The exception is when you’re asking students to work on a more complex assignment."
  • A longer, but still specific and limited time frame, "allow[s] students to connect with each other and work in small groups, but they [aren't] just forced to have three minutes of conversation and never talk again."

6. "Find the right group size"

  • "[G]roups of two to five ... make sure everyone is engaged."
  • "[G]roups of up to 10 helps keep conversation going even if some students don’t show up or participate."

7. "Give each group a different assignment"

  • "[V]arying the assignments can counteract the tedium of hearing several groups of students talk about the same thing when class reconvenes and teams present their findings."

8. "Put everything in writing"

  • "[S]hare instructions for the breakout-room assignment in writing, in advance of the class session."
  • "[K]eep the instructions in a place that students can refer to during class."
  • "This avoids the problem of students who didn't pay attention and enter a breakout room not knowing what to do."

9. "Give students agency"

  • Get "more buy-in from ... students by explaining to them why [you] se[e] breakout rooms as a powerful learning tool."
  • "[A]llo[w] them to opt out on days when they’d rather not participate."
  • "[P]rovid[e] an 'escape hatch,' in which a student can ask privately to be reassigned to a different room, no explanation needed."

10. "Create connection"

  • "[C]onsider starting the session by asking them to discuss a question that’s not specifically related to classwork, but will get them to share something about themselves."
  • "Or create breakouts solely for the purpose of sparking conversation."
  • "[I]nstitute short (three-five-minute) breakout rooms at the beginning of class and the end of class with no specific assignments, to ‘simulate’ the beginning and end of in-person class, when students chat with one another."
  • "During these times, ... [be] available in the main room to answer questions or arrange a longer appointment."
Printer Friendly, PDF & Email