Now that you are more comfortable teaching over Zoom, you might be considering how to use breakout rooms more effectively or perhaps even try them for the first time. Breakout room activities can increase the depth of class discussion and create opportunities for students to connect with their colleagues. We recommend defining the specific learning goal of a breakout room activity and asking for a final product that moves beyond the basic discussion question to creating original content and ideas.
Breakout Room Features
Instructors and students who thoroughly understand how to navigate Zoom’s breakout room features are able to concentrate on the task, not fiddle with the controls. If you don’t feel comfortable yet, consider visiting Learning Innovation’s office hours with your questions, reviewing the help documentation, or watching a training video (25 minutes).
Zoom recently introduced the option for students to join their own breakout rooms. This new feature adds flexibility in how to use rooms. It allows you to skip manually assigning students based on groups (share a document with the group names and room number instead). Students could also choose rooms based on their interest in a subject (consider giving the rooms meaningful names). Teaching assistants and students will be able to move easily between rooms as well. You will find that setting when you initially set up the rooms.
Note: All participants must have the latest version of Zoom installed on their computers to use this breakout room feature. You will need to tell all students to download it ahead of class.
There are a few other advanced features in the breakout room interface that contribute to successful breakout sessions. First, you can create timed breakout rooms. That way, you can work with students or get prepared for the next part of the class without watching the clock. In addition, you can recreate rooms to send students back to the same groups to work together again to save time.
Finally, you can move or exchange students manually between rooms and assign students as they come in late to class to rooms.
Students must have a clear understanding of the purpose of the breakout session. Be specific about how long they have for the activity, how to contact you with questions, how the work should be captured, and what (and if) they will need to share with the group after the activity. Instructions should be communicated before they enter the rooms and shared again during the breakout session. You can send all students a link to a document or broadcast a message to all rooms.
Your instructions should also help students overcome any technological barriers by pointing out exactly what they’ll need to do in the room (for example, one student will open a whiteboard using the share screen button at the bottom of the window. All students will then add events related to the Civil War). In addition, if you are asking students to use a second app to create a product, be sure to demo that before breaking into rooms. We invite you to view our workshop on digital whiteboards (35 minutes) to gather ideas.
While it can be helpful to visit breakout rooms to see if they have questions or listen in to their conversations, it can lead to breakout rooms being open longer than needed and take students off task when you enter the room. Knowing what specifically needs to be done and having the opportunity to call on you is likely more important for students.
Before including a breakout room in your lesson plan, ask yourself if the students are likely to have the skills needed to complete the task. You might consider scaffolding several breakout rooms in a session to build on from one skill to the next. For example, the first breakout room could prompt students to compare their results on a homework problem or point out the errors in another example problem. When they return, ask them to share sticking points so that you can elaborate on concepts. Then recreate the groups and ask them to solve a novel problem or expand on the theorems or formulas in a new way. Invite them to notify you if they are stuck, and be flexible in your plans to bring the groups to a close early to review as a group if necessary.
When students spend part of the time in a breakout room (or prior to entering the breakout room) working and thinking independently, it encourages equal participation across the group. Turn-taking when speaking can be a challenge when there are shy students or a dominant team member. Solo work can lead to a greater diversity of ideas or depth of thought. Any independent work should be balanced by students reviewing, summarizing, challenging, or expanding on ideas together. It is important for the students to choose a timekeeper for these exercises or for you to broadcast a reminder message when they should compare answers. Some examples might be:
- Ask students to annotate a text using an app like Hypothesis.is. What is the best example of irony in Mark Twain’s essay? Take two minutes to mark your favorite(s) and then compare your choices with the group. As a group, decide which example you’ll share with the whole class.
- Share a document showing solved problems or equations with mistakes. Ask the group to annotate the problems to highlight the mistakes. Assign a follow-up question for each student to complete independently for five minutes. What error caused the person to make this mistake? How would you describe how to solve the problem to someone else? Share your answer with the group.
- Use the annotation tools in Zoom to have students vote to prompt discussion. Use the arrow stamp to choose the concept on the slide that you want to discuss. Circle the part of the painting that you find the most interesting. Professor Melissa Simmermeyer from Romance Languages provides many ideas in this presentation about using the annotation tools in Zoom for discussions.
The act of creating a novel product is an excellent way to learn – students are being active and are applying knowledge to perform a task. These types of breakout room activities can be welcome in classes where students don’t spend a lot of time thinking creatively and increase engagement. Ideas for creative breakout room activities include:
- Create a story problem that can be solved using a certain theorem/method with an interesting twist. Your solution must involve one person and at least five chickens. After the breakouts, pick two groups to present the problem and how to solve it. See if anyone can think of an alternative way to solve it that doesn’t involve the key theorem or method.
- Assign each group the task of defining or explaining a phenomenon with media items that aren’t usually part of class discussions. Find three pictures that represent the concept of participatory democracy and post it to a Google doc with an explanation of why you chose them.
- Create a flow chart, timeline, or mind map showing how historic or current events are connected. Today’s breakout assignment is to create a mind map of the civil rights marches as a review for the midterm. What do these events have in common? What were the outcomes of the marches?
- Instruct students to write about something in a new genre. Craft a 100-word personal ad for a character in this novel as a group. Your ads should be posted in the Sakai forum for all students to review before the next class so we can vote on the winner.
Breakout rooms can be a space for students to recreate some of the banter that happens in a physical classroom. It is also an opportunity to meet new students in larger classes. We encourage you to set aside 5 minutes of course time to have a social or fun activity when you are able. Promise not to drop in on their discussions so that students feel comfortable to speak freely and let them know that breakout rooms are not recorded. This type of activity builds community and is a personal outlet for students in this unusual time.
- I am opening breakout rooms for the first 5 minutes of class for everyone to discuss their favorite song in high school.
- To give everyone a break in this session, feel free to stretch your legs, use the restroom, and visit the breakout room to type one word describing how you are feeling today.
- The last activity today is to discuss in the breakout room what you think was the most important topic of this lecture or what you are still having trouble with understanding. I’ll be sending out an anonymous survey if you want to share any observations with me later.