Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!