Zoom into Breakout Rooms

Welcome to the world of zooming! By now, many of us have become quite familiar with the Zoom platform as the “new normal” for what had been face-to-face meetings and classes. Through these experiences, you may have had more of those “this could’ve/should’ve been handled in an email” meetings, or had classes with a range of engagement.

Over the past 2 1/2 semesters, with 6 classes during that time via Zoom, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, with class size ranging from 4 to 20, a key challenge that has come up across these classes is how to keep students engaged during the class time which can range from 1 to 4 or more hours at a time. Today we will share some teaching ideas for breakout rooms:

Brilliant Breakout Rooms: Breakout rooms (ideally) offer the possibility for partner or small group work and a chance for everyone’s voice to be heard and increasing engagement. Ideally. In reality, there is little to no control as to what happens in the breakout room. An instructor I was supervising reported yesterday that she had 7 breakout rooms, and as she jumped from room to room, almost all participants had their videos and the mics off. Prior to inviting them to the rooms, she had a slide that outline the instructions, and she told them to take a picture of their slide so they would remember the task. She also alerted them that she would be joining them in the rooms. About a minute in, she sent a reminder to all groups as to what they should be doing. Then she sent a message that she would shortly be joining. All of these are great ideas for increasing engagement, but repeatedly, the students were not engaging. Each time she entered a room, she had to repeat the instructions. Not quite the outcome she was hoping to have. What else could she do?

  • Provide material beforehand. If lengthy (paragraph or more) material is needed, such as a paragraph describing a case study or scenario, provide that information prior to class AND in class. For those who did not access/read the material beforehand, you can (a) remind them to do so at the beginning of class and during a break, (b) put a link to the needed material in the chat box, (c) provide the material on either a slide or document during the chat and suggest they take a picture or screenshot of it.
  • Simplify instructions. The more complicated or lengthy the instructions, the less likely the group will be able to accomplish the task. Follow the KISS acronym (keep it simple/short sweety). In a recent class, I had very, very brief scenarios for 3 groups, and decided to keep the instructions the same across groups.

  • Set a time limit. Determining how long to allow for breakout room activity can be challenging. The maximum amount of time that I’ve found helpful is ten minutes. 
  • Specify expectations for when they return. Another way to increase the likelihood participants will stay on task during breakout rooms is to let them know how what they will be doing in breakout rooms will be used when they get back. Saying “we’ll discuss what you’ve come up with” is too vague, and might result in their hoping someone else will carry that discussion and/or that they can jump in off of what someone else says. The slide below shows a table that I showed the students before dividing them into pairs (I have 11 in this class) so they would know what was expected when they came back. The assignment was to look. The partners were to look through 2 articles that were reading assignments on the history of counseling and school psychology, and identify what they felt were the top 5 developments for both fields during their assigned period of time. The expectation was that they would come back and paste their top fives into the table. By having this visual in front of them before they left for the breakout rooms guaranteed they would be on task.

  • Require reporting. Here’s an example of what the partners provided when they came back. I did have them also briefly summarize what stood out to them. In 5 words or less, how would you characterize your period for CP & SP? I gave advance instructions to listen for themes across the decades. After each group had gone I asked about general observations from what we had shared. I also asked what they thought was missing from the table, and the next decade would bring.

  • Vary the activities. As engaging as the activity above was, if it was the only type of breakout group activity I used each time, the approach would get tired.
    • Vary the number of people in the groups. Some activities work better with partners, some with a slightly larger group. 
    • Shake it up. Start by assigning people to rooms. After a few minutes, either ask certain members to move to another room, or manually  move people to different rooms. This can be useful when you are wanting people to hear different perspectives on a given topic.
    • Double the size, double the fun. Along the same lines of shake it up, if you start with partners on a specific topic, when the time is up, double the breakout room size by combining rooms. It should be clear what the new goal is. For example, it could be for each group to share what they discussed and to come up with a set # of recommendations.
    • Show and tell. Invite members to find one item that symbolizes their thoughts about one of the topics being discussed and share. In one class, we asked students to find something that helps them feel more confident with interviewing. Most chose an article of clothing or fixed their hair differently or showed a pair of shoes.
    • Role play. Often in my face-to-face classes, we’d have an application time when students would role play being a career counselor and client. Zoom breakout rooms is actually ideal for this, as they are much quieter than having 20 people in a classroom doing this at the same time. You could also include an observer to provide feedback.
    • Summarize key points. When I am covering a heavy topic, such as career theories, I usually have students pair up to summarize their notes to their partner on the key points of the last couple of theories I covered. This helps identify any gaps in their notes. Depending on the group size, partners/groups could be assigned specific theories and tasked with coming back with 3 key points of that theory, or analyzing a given case through the lens of that theory, or coming up with counseling questions that reflect the theory components.
    • Use other tools. Using a tool such as google docs can allow the whole class while in their breakout rooms to work on a shared document. They can create a brief presentation together that they then can share with the larger group.
  • Seek feedback. Consider having an anonymous survey or poll, perhaps not after every class and certainly not after every activity, but to see what they enjoyed about the breakout room activities, and if they have suggestions from other classes or their own experience on other types of activities that might be useful.

These are some hints that I’ve found to increase engagement during breakout rooms. What have you found to be helpful for increasing engagement? Hit us up in the comments!

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