Best Practices for Zoom Breakout Rooms

Jeff Rients

The breakout room features available in Zoom meetings allow us to craft learning experiences for our students that incorporate small group work. This allows students to test out new ideas and compare their learning to that of their peers. Importantly, this work blossoms in the lower-stakes environment of the small group, because individual students do not feel the same level of scrutiny and social pressure they face in front of their peers and the instructor.

Although breakout rooms are functionally analogous to small group work in the traditional classroom, they differ in some substantial ways. Perhaps the most important difference is that it is impossible to overhear what is happening in other small groups. Although the host of a Zoom meeting can visit each breakout room, you don’t receive any clues regarding student progress (or lack thereof) in the other rooms. Your ability to “read the room” is reduced in comparison to patrolling the room during in-person small group activities. Here are some strategies you can use for better oversight and overall improvement of your breakout room activities:

Clarify instructions

Sometimes breakout room activities don’t work out as planned because the students arrive at their room and don’t know what to do. Whenever possible give written instructions that you share via the File tool in the Chat window. You can also put these instructions on a slide and review them orally before sending students to the breakout rooms. This gives students a chance to review the task and ask questions before they leave the main meeting. If your activity has a hard time limit (and most activities should) include that on the instruction sheet and use the timer option when you set up the breakout rooms.

Keep lines of communication open

Remind students that they can use the Ask for Help button in the breakout room to reach out to you. You may also want to remind students that they can leave their breakout room and come back to the main room to ask a question. You can also use the Broadcast a Message to All tool to send short reminders or clarifications out to all rooms. (But keep in mind that such messages don’t stay up for long, so you may wish to broadcast important information more than once.) And don’t forget that both the host and co-hosts can visit any room they want, though co-hosts must be manually placed in a breakout room by the host first before they are able to move among the other rooms.. You could even appoint some students as co-hosts with the task of checking in on the breakout rooms.

Encourage accountability

Perhaps the easiest thing you can do to energize students in breakout rooms is to create activities that require some sort of reporting out to the instructor and/or the rest of the class. The simplest approach would be to call on students after the activity, asking them to share their results. (This technique works best when you warn the students ahead of time that you are going to do this; you can also put this fact in the instructions you share.) Another approach is to create a worksheet that each student must complete and hand in via the Canvas Assignment tool, with a deadline set for the end of the Zoom session. Or you can build the activity around a Canvas Quiz that the students work on together while in the breakout rooms.

Vary activities

Sometimes student participation wanes simply because they are used to the routine of the classroom. A new breakout room activity that requires different skills for success or that poses a new challenge can re-activate disengaged students.

Temple instructors needing additional assistance with breakout rooms or other educational technology issues are invited to visit our Virtual Drop-In Ed Tech Lab, a Zoom room that is open 8:30am-5pm Monday through Friday. There you’ll find our ed tech specialists ready to help you, with no appointment needed. Alternatively, you can make an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with a member of either our pedagogy or ed tech teams. We’re here to help you!

Jeff Rients is Senior Teaching and Learning Specialist at Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

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