Keeping Breakout Rooms On Task

A woman sits at a desktop computer. On the screen is a video meeting with a large grid of many participants' video feeds.

Graduate Teaching Blog Post

Contributed by Phillippa Pitts

(4 minute read)

Q: I hear students benefit from small group work and appreciate using Zoom breakout rooms. But how will I know that they’re staying on task if I’m not there?

A: This is a question that came up frequently in the physical classroom. Now, in the Zoom world, it feels even more pressing. Without the ability to walk around and casually listen in on small group discussions—or even just stand at the head of the classroom and see whether or not students appeared to be on task—it can be very unnerving to release your students into a void and hope that they’re working away successfully.

However, we do know that group work is enormously important for student learning. By introducing variety, it helps students to ward off fatigue and recharge their ability to focus. Activities let students test their understanding, identify points of confusion and solidify memory. Working with peers can boost their confidence to volunteer a brave idea. Their responses also give you, the instructor, real-time feedback about what they’ve mastered and where you need to provide more help or clarity.

How to do it:

(1) Build accountability into the task. Open ended questions are great for learning, but with clear deliverables you’ll be able to tell if students have really been spending time on task. It’s also harder for students to intentionally skip off topic when they know there’s something expected of them imminently. Fortunately, “deliverables” doesn’t have to mean coming up with a correct answer or keeping the conversation within artificially narrow boundaries. What if you asked each group to share their top three questions about the lecture, reading, or course content? Or to add six words to a collective brainstorming list? Or to collectively choose something from outside of the course content that they felt was relevant to the discussion?

(2) Watch them work. Ask students to brainstorm or take-notes in real time on a shared Google Doc or with Google Jamboard as a collective whiteboard space. They can head into the Zoom breakout rooms or, when it’s safe, cluster in small groups, while you watch them work in real-time. This can be an excellent way not only to see if students are completing the assigned activity, but also to keep an eye out for groups that appear to be stuck, have misunderstood the prompt, or have otherwise gone astray. What I really appreciate about this method is that it helps you, as the instructor, to be a resource for the students whilst still giving them that safer space of peer-to-peer learning.

(3) Make the purpose clear. Why are you having the students do this task? Is this a low-stakes opportunity for them to practice a skill that they’ll need for a future exam and get feedback before test day? Are you helping them level up: to solve a problem, perhaps, that would be too hard for the individual, but multiple minds could think through? Are you asking them to discuss something that different people would interpret differently, so turning and talking to each other will give them more information than they could have ever gained alone? Don’t just answer these questions for your own understanding — make these reasons clear to your students as well.

How does this last point make you feel more confident leaving your students alone and unattended in a Zoom discussion room? If you can highlight intrinsic reasons for students to stay on task, you may find yourself less in need of extrinsic motivators!

Good luck!