The Role of Zoom’s Breakout Rooms

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Breakout Rooms can be one of the most effective ways of integrating discussion and student engagement into classes – explore ways of integrating them in your classes. 

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Opportunities for using breakout rooms within class

Benefits of breakout rooms include:

  • Changing-up the pace of the class: A great way to ensure that a 90-min or several hour class does not become  monotonous by changing up the pace of the class
  • Increasing student involvement: With medium to large students it is often very difficult for all students to participate in discussion during the full class. Breakout rooms enable students to have greater opportunities to share their opinions.
  • Reinforcing learning: Students learn in different ways; incorporating a variety of traditional activities form lecture content and application exercises can reinforce learning.
  • Providing a safe space for discussions: While many students enjoy participating in the main class, some are less comfortable with the pressure of making points in front of all their classmates and the instructor. Breakout rooms provide students a safer space for discussing the material without the feeling of being judged. 

Short-form breakout rooms (2-10 minutes)

Short breakout rooms can be a great ‘low-risk’ way to quickly giving students an option of discussing the material, without the risk that students feel excessive time is being devolved to the activity or the danger that students will go off on a tangent, missing the key purpose of the activity. 

Longer-form breakout rooms (10 mins - 45 minutes)

Longer breakout rooms provide are great ways to allow students to work on specific activities, such as developing a slide or response to a particular question, allowing more in-depth consideration than feasible with short-form breakouts.

With longer breakout rooms though, it may be necessary to individually visit rooms to discuss the material and ensure that groups are on track or to re-convince the groups partway through to address any issues that may have arrived. 

Considerations with using breakout rooms

Your role as an instructor during the breakout room

When using breakout rooms, as an instructor you should consider whether you intend to visit breakout rooms to discuss the material with the students, or to remain in the main room, potentially to assist with any students who are having difficulty in connecting to their breakout room.

For shorter breakouts, there is less of an advantage (or opportunity) to visit the rooms  – indeed it may not be desirable, since it may be perceived as ‘hovering’ over the students, removing the sense that the breakout rooms are a safe space for sharing their views. 

Number of students in each breakout room

There is no fixed rule as to the number of students that are best suited to breakout rooms and group sizes can be mixed up between exercises. Consideration includes:

  • Speaking opportunities: The smaller number of students in the room, the greater opportunity for each student to speak.
  • Diversity in thought: Particularly for subjective material, the greater the number of students in each group, the greater the opportunity for diverse discussion.
  • Possibility of devolving to chit-chat: A potential problem with very small groups, particularly in close classes where all students are good friends with one another, is the danger that in the largely unsupervised breakout rooms can devolve to tangential discussions or ‘catching-up’. Having more students in the groups may reduce this likelihood, with the presence of other students keeping the group in check. 

Whether to have all students work on the same or different activities

Depending on how the activities will be re-discussed within the broader class, it is possible to assign the same task to all groups, or different. While assigning the same activity is by far the simpler, avoiding unnecessary time spent describing different tasks, having multiple groups work on different areas may provide greater opportunists for follow-on discussion, with different groups sharing different views.

How students should share any learnings discussed as part of the larger class

Possibilities include:

  • Discussion: The simplest way of building on the discussion is to have a broader discussion with all students involved in the broader class. 
  • Sharing of exercise material: If students during the breakout room are engaged in a specific activity (for example developing a slide on a particular question), then a great follow on activity is to get one, or a number of students to share the material back to the broader class. 
 
Subsequent discussions provide an opportunity to clarify student confusion, extend the conversation in different directions, and for students to see different perspectives discussed in other groups. To avoid repetition of material that all groups are likely to have discussed, think in advance about the role of the in-person discussion, and consider what new dimensions you hope to bring to subsequent discussion. 
 

How to share instructions with students

One thing to consider when using breakout rooms is how to share instructions with students, since, unlike in-person teaching, breakout rooms don’t have the ability for students to refer to a displayed power-point mid discussion. Options for conveying the task include:

  • In-person conveying the instructions: While in-person describing the breakout activity does not provide the ability for students to refer back to the task, this is by far the quickest way of communicating information and may be best for short or impromptu breakouts. 
  • Chat: Using the chat feature within Zoom to copy/paste the instructions in advance of the breakout room starting. While this can work great, it is important to note that chat messages are only delivered to students when they are in the main room – once they have broken into groups, chat messages will not be delivered
  • Broadcast messages: Once students are in breakout rooms, it is possible to broadcast a message to all of the rooms – a potentially useful feature for conveying additional information mid-breakout room. 

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