Zoom breakout rooms can be a great way of facilitating interaction between students during online teaching sessions. They can be particularly useful when teaching large groups, when the possibility of student contributions is more limited. However, there is a danger that these rooms can become silent spaces where students are not actually interacting and when we aren’t able to circulate around a room to check on student progress this can be difficult to monitor and mitigate.
Below are a series of practical tips for setting up and facilitating breakout room activities. We have split these into what you can do before, during and after an activity to provide students with the knowledge they need to make the most of this opportunity to interact with their peers.
Make sure to set out the activity instructions and timings clearly. What is the purpose of the activity? What will students need to produce or communicate back? How long will they be spending on it? It is a good idea to include this information on any slides or resources you are using so that it is as clear as possible to students what is expected of them. You should also provide direct links to any resources that students will be required to use so that they don’t need to spend the time allocated for the activity looking for these. These resources might include any articles, case studies or collaborative documents they will need to access. The easiest way of doing this is through the Chat within Zoom.
Before sending students into their breakout rooms, check that they understand what is required and allow some time for them to ask questions about the activity. You can also take this opportunity to remind them of the ‘Ask for help’ button within their breakout room. This allows them to indicate to you that they have a question or are stuck and call you into their room.
Finally allocate your students to their groups. There are a number of different ways you can do this, you can assign groups randomly, allow students to self select into groups or you can set up groups in advance by pre-assigning them. Think about what will work best for the activity you have prepared and bear in mind that allowing students to self select their groups may take more time out of the session.
Once students have joined their breakout rooms you can use the tools within Zoom to check on student progress. Instead of circulating around the room, as you would when teaching in person, you can drop into each room to see how they are getting on with the assigned activity, encourage further discussion and check that they are on task. It may be a good idea to let students know you will be doing this beforehand as this will hopefully encourage them to start interacting. You can also use this time to respond to any requests for help that you receive.
Consider requiring students to contribute to a collaborative resource, for example a shared Office 365 document or a Padlet wall. This requires students to create some kind of output during the activity, hopefully encouraging them to engage. It also makes feeding back to the whole group quicker, particularly for larger cohorts, and provides students with a resource they can take away at the end of the session.
Don’t forget that you can broadcast messages to students while they are in their breakout rooms. You could use this feature to send reminders of timing, for example that they have two minutes left or that they should think about moving on to the second half of the activity or a second discussion question.
Once students have returned from their breakout rooms you should require them to feedback into the session, this provides more of a purpose to the activity as students can see how it feeds into the wider teaching session. There are a number of ways that you could capture this. Firstly, you can ask students to report back verbally, this could be a nominated member of the group or all students within a group. Secondly, you can ask them to post a summary in the Chat and then read this aloud to share with the whole cohort. Finally, you could do this by looking through the contributions that the groups have made to a collaborative resource. This approach is particularly useful for large groups when asking each group to report back verbally would be very time consuming. Once you have done this aim to then sum up the key points from the activity.
Get in touch
Don’t forget that breakout rooms aren’t the only way of encouraging student interaction online and won’t necessarily be the best approach for every activity, there are many other options to explore. If you would like support using breakout rooms or other learning technologies within your teaching please visit the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere support site or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to run through any ideas that you have for different activities and to help you think through how to redesign in person activities for online teaching.