Zoom breakout rooms are a teaching tool being used more frequently as universities invest in the application and as instructors become more familiar in setting up and using the breakout rooms.
Having students work in breakout rooms can provide a change of pace in class and enable more students to engage actively in class.
As a member of the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teaching Awards Committee, I have observed graduate students utilizing Zoom breakout rooms in a wide range of subject areas. Whereas instructors typically only make brief visits to breakout rooms during class, I have been able to observe the full time students are in a breakout room.
Based on my observations, I’m offering a few suggestions for using Zoom breakout rooms.
Develop an effective breakout room assignment.
Creating a good breakout room assignment is like creating a good small group discussion activity for face-to-face classes. Consider what a small group discussion will accomplish in a more productive way than a full-class discussion.
Tasks that include several appropriate responses are more likely to encourage discussion. Refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy to help you structure discussion questions that will encourage students to higher levels of thinking about a topic.
Determine the students to be in each group.
The more students in the group, the more time the discussion may take to allow everyone to participate. A good number for discussion is three to five students.
Consider having students work in the same group so they become more comfortable with each other. That could mean having students work in the same group for several activities during one class session or being in the same group for a longer time.
Before sending the students into their breakout rooms, provide guidance on what you expect to happen during their discussion.
You want students to have a productive discussion with everyone participating. You may want to assign roles to the group, including a group leader and a notetaker. From my observations in breakout rooms, student discussions are more on topic if the instructor assigns an outcome expectation. For example, each group is expected to report back to the full group or each group must submit group notes.
Also remind students that you expect everyone to participate at least once in the discussion and that the group leader, if you assign one, is to help make that happen.
Encourage students to have the discussion directions while in their breakout room.
In observing breakout rooms, I’ve found that student groups often did not complete the full assignment because they had forgotten all the tasks they were to accomplish, and no one had a copy of the directions.
In an in-person class, typically the tasks for the group discussion would be on the screen or whiteboard, which students could refer to as they discussed. Instructors for on-line classes typically have the same kind of directions on a slide as they explain the breakout room assignment. But when the students go to their breakout rooms, they do not have the directions. Before sending them to the breakout rooms, give this reminder:
Because you won’t have access to this slide once you go into your breakout room, do a screen capture of the slide now or you can access the slides in our course in Canvas.
Check in with the breakroom rooms.
Depending on the number of breakout rooms and the amount of time allocated for the task. You may or may not be able to visit each breakout room. A strategy can be to have more than one breakout activity during class to enable you to visit every group at least once during class.
When you visit the room, observe for a short time to hear how the group is doing. Based on what you hear, you can ask a question to take their discussion to the next level or to help get them on track.
If you drop into a breakout room and ask “How are you doing?” most often students are going to say “fine” whether they are or not. A better approach would be to say, “What questions do you have at this point that I might be able to help you with?”
Debrief from each breakout room activity.
If you have students work in groups but then don’t incorporate that discussion into class, students may consider the breakout room activities simply as a way to fill class time.
Once you have reconvened the class, ask for feedback from the groups. Depending on the size of the class, you may be able to have each group report. Every group has had time to discuss, so you can call on groups and not just wait for volunteers.
If you’ve designed an effective discussion activity, the debriefing fits into the next steps of your objectives for the day’s lesson. The debriefing also is a time when students can raise questions that came up during their discussion or can be issues you raise based on what you heard during your breakout room visits.
Include ettiquette guidelines for Zoom and breakout rooms in your syllabus.
Most universities have developed wording for instructors to use in their syllabi regarding the use of online learning platforms. Be sure to spend class time, especially at the beginning of the semester, to discuss the guidelines and why the guidelines are important for their classroom learning and for knowing best practices of online meetings for their professional lives.
Learn how to set up and use Zoom breakout rooms.
If your university has purchased the Zoom breakout room tool, the university’s technology department should have developed guidelines on how to create and use breakout rooms. Zoom provides breakout room information, too.
The instructors I have observed were able to move students into their breakout rooms in a smooth and efficient manner and were able to visit rooms during the discussion. They also provided a countdown to all groups for leaving the breakout rooms.
Be aware of Zoom fatigue.
In one class I observed that was taught through Zoom, students participated in four breakout room activities during the three-hour course. Near the end of their 10-minute discussion in the third activity, the students talked about how tired they were of Zoom breakout rooms and Zoom in general.
Zoom can dampen the enthusiasm of students and instructors.
You can help fight Zoom fatigue for students with your enthusiasm in class, the design of the discussion assignment, and your feedback on the breakout room work.