Breakout Rooms!


Hope everyone is wrapping up Spring semester and graduation! Since we have all switched to teaching remotely, I thought it would be a good time to discuss active learning online.

Today, we’ll discuss breakout rooms.

Breakout rooms are a fantastic way to initiate active learning in an online teaching environment. They are best in a class that is taught live or synchronous. I am going to talk less about how to initiate breakout rooms and more about the opportunities to engage students when using them.

You can do almost any small group active learning in breakout rooms that you would in the class room. Students have full audio, video, and screen sharing capabilities. Peer-to-peer interaction and feedback can be incorporated. Like small groups in the classroom, they can also promote inclusion by providing an opportunity for low-stakes participation for learners who may be reluctant to chime in during large group sessions.

Finally, breakout session activities can serve as a tool for formative assessment as the activities students complete can help instructors gauge achievement of the learning outcomes. 

Small group discussion, Think – Pair – Share, Group project, Peer feedback, Jigsaw activity

My best activities with breakout rooms so far have been case-based. I have used breakout rooms in the flipped classroom setting as well as in-class assignments. For in-class assignments, I tell them the cases/questions that they are to work on. I then pop into the breakout rooms to facilitate and see if there are any questions. Students are typically sharing the screen of one person who is scribing for the group. A google doc where all can contribute can also be useful in this setting.

In the flipped classroom setting, breakout rooms were particularly effective. Students came prepared with the review of a complex case and its discussion questions. I had two additional facilitators and we each participated in various breakout rooms. There was lively discussion in the breakout rooms and in the large group setting. In order to review the case in the large group setting, we all returned to the main session and I shared my screen.

The first decision when using breakout rooms is whether or not to pre-assign students. I prefer to have Zoom randomly assign them to the breakout rooms. Students and instructors can be moved/exchanged as needed. Sometimes, students may need to use their phone for audio vs computer or will need to log out and back in. I have had residents help me facilitate discusssions and it is useful to move them throughout the breakout rooms at certain intervals.

Timing: I really appreciate the timing feature available for breakout rooms. You can set breakout rooms for a certain time, set a timer to notify the host when a certain amount of time has passed, and set the amount of time for class to return to the main session.

Start with active learning that you are comfortable with. If you are comfortable with Jigsaw collaborative learning, it is also a great one for breakout rooms. Like trying any new technology, you want to start with low stakes and do a pilot if possible. I asked my rotation students to practice breakout rooms with me just so that I felt more comfortable with the mechanics before using it in my class.

Once I was in class, I realized that the previous instructor in this team taught class had done something strange with the assignments to rooms. Luckily, it was straight forward enough to change back to random assignments. As you practice these tools, they’ll become more comfortable and easier to troubleshoot!


-Recording: the host in the main meeting will only receive the main recording. If you want to have individual breakout rooms recorded, you will need to assign co-hosts to record each breakout room. This may be a challenge if you have students who plan to participate asynchronously.

-Only the host of the meeting can create, open, close breakout rooms. Consider a co-host if you are teaching with someone or a TA.

-Transition from passive listening to active engagement. If students have been listening in the large group and then will be assigned to small groups, be sure to give clear objectives for their small groups. Once they are in their groups, you will only be able to broadcast messages to all. It is useful to give clear instructions and provide time for questions before assigning them to their breakout rooms.

-Access to assignment: Have the assignment available somewhere else (Canvas, Blackboard, etc) as students will not have access to the Whiteboard once breakout rooms have started. You will want to send a similar transition message via a broadcast message when it is time to return to the main session. It is useful for the students to have something specific to report back, (i.e. a deliverable), rather than just a summary of what they discussed.

-Last reminder: have fun and be flexible! The students are excited to learn from you and the more engaging, the better. We are all taking in more screen time than we are used to, so the more we can actively discuss topics together, the better. Let us know which online tools are working best for you in this switch to remote teaching!

Congratulations on finishing up a great Spring semester!