Suggestions to help prepare for using online breakout rooms as learning activities

video conferencing

Groupwork is a valuable part of a student’s experience as it gives them the opportunity to work with peers and develop more confident teamwork and communication skills (amongst many other skills). In the classroom this activity can take place by asking the students to sit together in groups or if in a lecture theatre type classroom form groups of pairs by row and then one pair turn around to form a four with the pair behind. You might ask the groups to find a space of their own and return to the classroom after a set time. In these smaller groups students can be asked to work on a problem, engage in discussions, or any other activity they can work on collaboratively.

However when teaching online the use of video conferencing at first glance may not appear to be conducive of groupwork. It will depend on the space you are using but there are some that offer breakout rooms. The two examples I have experienced are Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom. At the time of writing I understand MS Teams are also developing this feature. For now there are some workarounds using other approaches like adding additional channels within a team. There could be others too.

Within Collaborate and Zoom the tutor leading the online class can choose to self select or randomly select groups of students. The feature allows them to send each group of students to a separate online room. The tutor can also visit those rooms to check on progress, and can bring the students back to the main room when they wish to. Once in the breakout room, participants have full audio, video, and screen share capabilities.

It is a different experience to being in the physical classroom and the aim of this post is to provide a number of tips that can help both tutors and students prepare for this activity.

  1. Provide clear instructions for the breakout activity that students can access prior to and during the activity. Once in the breakout room they will need to refer back to these! This will avoid the “What are we supposed to be doing” once in the breakout room.
  2. Have a practice run using this feature for the first time with your students. It may also be the first time for you, so let the students know this.
  3. Tell the students how long they will expect to be in the breakout room to work on the activity you are setting. You may also want to consider adding an additional bonus task to stretch those students who might finish before other groups. It’s helpful to give them a 2-5 minute warning so they can wrap things up.
  4. You can monitor progress by visiting each of the breakout rooms and checking on the students, but this can become time consuming where you have larger numbers of groups. One solution might be to assign a Google Doc to each group which students are asked to add notes/solutions to, and then have these open in different tabs on a different screen/device for you to view. It will highlight how they are doing and you can focus on visiting the groups that may need support.
  5. Once the allocated time for the activity is up, it can be useful to ask for each group to feedback what they have done. Warning the groups in advance and either asking for or assigning a notetaker and spokesperson, can help prepare the students.
  6. By asking the students to make notes in a collaborative document, they will have a record they can refer back to later. This may be helpful to feed into other activities or even assignments further down the line.

Prior to the online class

  • Create the detailed instructions for the activity that you will go through in the class and make this accessible to the students to refer back to.
  • Set up a Google Doc for each group, transferring the key requirements / questions to this working document and title by group number. This will form the working collaborative document the students can use to gather notes whilst in the breakout room. Having these as bullet points will help the students keep on task.
  • Provide the students a link to the Google Doc and make sure you adjust the settings so that it is set to editable, so that they can add information.
  • You will need to decide if you plan to manually create groups or opt for randomly create based on the number per group you wish them to work in.

During the online class

  • Go through the breakout activity brief and respond to any questions.
  • Ensure all students can access the master brief and the group Google Doc (GD) they will use in the breakout room.
  • It can be useful to assign or establish a volunteer note taker and person to feedback for each group, prior to sending them to the breakout room. If you plan to use this feature for future activities these roles could be rotated so all students experience.
  • Be clear everyone needs to contribute to the activity.
  • Where students will continue to work in the same groups, the working group GD could be used for future connected breakout activities, thus keeping the notes in one place.

In addition to sending students to breakout groups for groupwork activities, you can also use this function to send individual students. This can be useful if they are working independently on an activity and need some help, as they can share their screen with a tutor once in the breakout room.

The example of the collaborative working space given is a Google Doc. You could replace this with a link to a Padlet board, collaborative mind map or whiteboard tool, Google Slides, shared Trello board and more. I’d love to hear how you have developed activities for your students.

The infographic below is a summary of the points discussed. This was created using Piktochart.

Tips on how to prepare for online breakout room learning activities

About Sue Beckingham

A National Teaching Fellow, Educational Developer and Principal Lecturer in Computing with a research interest in the use of social media in higher education.
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