Using Zoom Breakout Rooms Effectively
Many of us know from experience that large Zoom meetings can make interaction difficult, and that can lead to lack of engagement and inequities with who gets to be heard. Using breakout rooms in your classes can help get more students engaged in conversations and activities, but like all small group work, their use must be structured well to be productive. Zoom breakout rooms are new, but small group activities are not, and much of what we include in this guide is based on research-based principles of what makes small group activities work well.
Note: This guide is not intended to give you all of the technical details about managing a Zoom session. You can find those details in IT Training's Zoom: Using Breakout Rooms.
Tip 1: Clarify Purpose and Tasks (aka avoid busy work)
Make sure students always understand why you are using breakout rooms. Clearly state the reasons for the activity and connect it to larger course outcomes or goals—how this activity is going to help them meet those outcomes, prepare for exams, etc. Here are some possible reasons you may want to use breakout room activities:
- More opportunities for active learning and individual engagement
- Ability to rehearse and lock in knowledge while explaining concepts to others (peer instruction)
- Practice applying concepts to cases and scenarios
- Community-building and support (which can improve sense of belonging and lead to longer-term study groups)
- Sharing of diverse viewpoints, contexts, and skills
As you develop the tasks you will ask students to accomplish in their groups, consider the following:
- Group tasks should generally be something individuals cannot accomplish on their own.
- Make clear connections to the learning outcomes (of the class or the day); the benefits should be tangible for students.
- Be careful not to overuse group work, particularly if the purposes and benefits aren't very clear. You might even do quick feedback activities to see if students are seeing the purpose and benefitting from the breakout room activities. You want them to look forward to these activities, not dread them.
- Give intermediate steps for complex tasks. You may even break those steps down with how much time to spend on each; this will scaffold more complex cognitive tasks and provide a useful time structure.
- Rather than “make a list” activities, shift toward “make a specific choice” activities that ask for comparison, synthesis, or judgement. (Michaelson, 1997)
Tip 2: Use Deliverables (Google Docs or Slides)
Use a deliverable to give the breakout room activity focus—from lists of student-generated examples to answers to complex questions that involves application or judgement. Using a common Google Doc and/or Google Slides file for these deliverables serves three purposes: 1) It allows you to see their work in progress, allowing you to visit groups needing guidance or nudging. 2) It makes sharing out to the larger class easier, since all deliverables are in one place and you can easily share them yourself rather than having each group share their screens. 3) It can act as a longer-term storage of the day’s work, allowing students to go back and learn from other groups’ work. Before you send students off to groups, share a short URL to the common document (and include it in the syllabus), in case someone cannot easily click a link on their device.
Use Google Slides to create a place where each group can share their deliverable—a list, solution to a problem or scenario, a sketch or diagram, etc.
- Create one big slide deck with a template copied into each slide, with the group’s number.
- Be sure to set the permissions to let everyone in the class edit the file.
- Ask that only one person per group edit the slides (less room for accidental erasures; 100-person max per file)
- Pros: Cleaner deliverable for presentation; Easier for instructor to scan when selecting groups to report out.
- Cons: Not appropriate to show in-process or individual work; Primarily presentational, not procedural.
Use a Google Doc to allow students to record their group’s notes as well as their deliverable. This allows you to require all group members to post their individual contributions to the Google doc to ensure everyone is actively engaged.
- Make sure each group has its own clear page or section of a table, so they know where to put their notes and deliverable.
- Be sure to set the permissions to let everyone in the class edit the document.
- Give students a few minutes to respond to a prompt on their own before they put their individual ideas in the group’s notes, and then have them move on to the discussion part of the activity. This ensures everyone engages and gives you evidence of that, providing accountability.
- Repeat the instructions on each group’s page, so they don’t have to go scrolling up to the top of the document while they work.
- In small classes, you can just use a table separating group areas. In large classes, give each group its own page (separated by a hard page break) to avoid the page continually scrolling as lots of people are adding notes.
- In large classes, you might need to create multiple Google Docs to accommodate the number of editors involved (100 max per document).
- Give them space to write notes, but make sure they include a more clearly worded decision/deliverable that 1) provides a useful conclusion to their work, and 2) is useful to classmates from other teams.
- You can always use a combination of the two types of documents if the breakout activity is fairly complex and involves significant time—a Doc for recording in-process notes and a Slide for reporting out of the deliverable.
- Pros: Allows you to see their work in progress, giving you a better idea which groups to visit, especially on a longer breakout room assignment; Provides for individual accountability; Allows you to add more detailed and scaffolded instructions, especially useful in multi-step activities.
- Cons: Can get cluttered in large classes; More difficult for presentation purposes.
Tip 3: Be Intentional about Assigning Students to Groups
Simply sending students into group activities isn’t as easy as it seems, and there have been many studies that have examined the factors involved in successful learning in groups. Here are a few key tips from that research:
- Your groups should include 2-6 students, depending on the tasks you are asking them to do. If it is a simple think-pair-share activity, 2-3 students are fine, especially if the goal is a quick discussion with minor deliverable. More complex tasks, or those requiring more diverse perspectives, will need more students per group.
- Having too few students limits the breadth of skills and perspectives in the group, while too many students lets some not engage. Evidence shows that groups of three are best in some problem-solving tasks (Johnson et al., 2006; Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992).
- To help the groups get to productive work more quickly, and to make the experience more equitable and engaging for all, assign students roles. This is particularly important when students are new to group work or haven’t formed good working relationships yet. (Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992)
- Basic roles can include: Facilitator, note taker, presenter, and timekeeper; Advanced roles can include integrator (to make sure everyone participates), skeptic/devil’s advocate, researcher, etc. Consider what tasks are necessary for a group to interact well and solve the problem at hand.
- Have quick activities to pick roles, which can also act as icebreakers: Closest birthday is facilitator, next is note taker…, etc. Or who lives furthest from Bloomington, or who came from the biggest high school, etc.
- Rotate assignments if you use the same groups in multiple class sessions.
For more general information about effective group work, see Vanderbilt University’s group work page.
There are four ways you can assign your students to groups:
- Pre-Assigning Students to Breakout Rooms
You can create breakout groups when you first create a scheduled meeting.
- Pros: Lets you ensure diversity and distribution of strengths; Allows you to group students by known interest or specialization, or by longer-term group assignments; Allows you to assign students to groups associated with specific AIs for their lab/discussion sections.
- Cons: Takes more time before class to pre-load groups, which is fine if you keep the same groups all semester, but too much work for each class meeting; Groups can be uneven if some students don’t show up that day. Be sure to practice this beforehand.
- Manually in Class
You can assign students to rooms manually from the Breakout Rooms controls, right before you open the rooms.
- Pros: Fairly easy in small classes or if you have an AI/UTA to help; Allows you to adapt group assignments in the moment. (Note: Only the Host can assign breakouts, so you would have to make the AI Host, and have them make you Co-Host.)
- Cons: Can take too long in large classes.
- Tip: If students know their groups, they can rename themselves to “1 - Zhang Wei, 2 - Carmen Sanchez, 3 - Erica Donaldson,” etc. This makes manual assignments easier.
You can randomly send students to breakout rooms, just indicating how many rooms you want to divide the class into.
- Pros: Quickest method—just choose the number of groups; They meet more students in class.
- Cons: No way to control groups’ diversity or strengths; Limits student selection of topics that interest them; Rotating to different groups each time my require extra time during each activity to build some group cohesion.
- Tip: You can randomly assign students to groups and move a few manually if you see some problematic pairings, but do it before you open the rooms, or they will get yanked between groups mid-task.
- Select Their Own Group
You can open the breakout rooms and have students select which one they want to go into, as well as moving between rooms.
- Pros: Students can select breakout room topics they are most interested in (which can lead to greater engagement/investment) IF each breakout room is set up to focus on a different topic; Useful for other purposes, like virtual poster sessions.
- Cons: Self-selected groups can lack diversity and lead to confirmation bias; May lead to uneven group sizes.
- Note: Selecting their own room requires all participants to have version 5.3.0 or higher of the Zoom desktop client (information on updating). If a few students do not, you can always send them manually to a group.
Tip 4: Work on Timing: How Long Should Breakout Rooms Last?
Small group work always takes longer than we think—getting into the room, spending a few moments chatting or figuring out the task at hand, and keeping focused while getting to all the parts of the assignment. The length of your breakout rooms depends on a few factors, including: 1) the complexity of the tasks you assign, 2) the level of detail required by the deliverable, and 3) students’ familiarity with their teammates and the processes you follow.
With small groups and a quick question—such as a think-pair-share or a brainstorming session meant to get their brains working—five minutes may be enough. More complex questions with a deliverable might take 10-20 minutes, although 20 minutes is a long time unless you have a detailed and well-scaffolded activity for them. For long tasks with big deliverables, consider waypoints to keep them on track, and be ready to check in on their progress—another reason for having them work through the steps in a shared Google Doc. If you need to keep group time brief, consider reducing the task size, avoiding multiple questions, or assigning different questions to different groups.
If students know each other already—like if you use the same groups each meeting—things will go faster. New groups take a bit longer to gel and get started. Consider giving new groups a few extra minutes for introductions and/or an icebreaker. Larger groups often need more time to work, as it takes longer to coordinate people and give everyone a chance for input.
Be ready to give groups more time if you sense they need it—another reason to check in with groups by watching their Google Docs and visiting their breakout rooms. And broadcast a 3- or 5-minute warning before the end of group time, so they can finish up deliverables or prepare for reporting out (sticking the reporter with that task with 30 seconds left is cruel).
Tip 5: Build in Mechanisms for All Voices to Be Heard
A challenge in all group work is to keep a few people from dominating, and to give everyone an opportunity to engage and have input; that is even more true online when it is easier to sit back and disengage. Assigning roles helps include everyone from a logistical point of view, but you should also build activities that require everyone’s involvement. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that:
- Make sure your group roles include someone who is tasked with drawing everyone into the conversation—both to get early input and to vet the deliverable. In smaller groups, this can be the facilitator, and in larger groups it may be a separate role called “includer.”
- Create tasks or prompts that invite (or require) different perspectives or interpretations; questions with a simple correct answer can shut down discussions quickly once someone gets the answer (or thinks they do).
- Require each individual’s contributions be reflected in the team’s notes. (Step 1: Take 3 minutes to individually think about your response to the prompt and put your individual ideas in the team’s notes. Step 2: Review everyone’s ideas as the first step toward your assignment.)
- Discuss group dynamics with your class and invite everyone to speak up if the dynamics are off—if someone isn’t getting a chance to talk, if someone keeps getting cut off, if men are dominating, etc. It takes everyone to add to the health of the group.
Tip 6: Support Your Groups while They Work
Just like you move around between groups in class, plan to move between breakout groups in Zoom. Be careful not to get caught up in one room, since you cannot just glance around a room for other groups needing help. If you have AIs or undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) in your class, they can be assigned to rooms or float among them. Dropping into rooms is even more important when you have assigned complex or multi-step activities.
Let students know how they can contact you during breakout rooms, so you can pop in to address a question. If they have the most recent version of Zoom, they can click the “Ask for Help” button to call the Host to their group. If you are working with AIs or UTAs, they cannot get called to a room, so you might have a plan to ask them to visit a room (e.g., Group 4 asks for help, and you group-text your UTAs, asking one of them to visit that breakout room).
If you like to have students lead class discussions, have groups take turns developing activities (with your or an AI’s guidance), have them do a short presentation at the start of class, and then have them drop into breakout rooms to help guide those discussions. They become the day’s experts and breakout room coaches.
Tip 7: Report Out (selectively) and Offer Alternative Ways to Maintain Knowledge
Having groups report out is an important part of using breakout rooms—it provides accountability for the groups, adds a sense of importance to the work they just did, and allows you to review and build upon their work in order to move the whole class forward. This is your opportunity to demonstrate and add value to the work they just did in groups. Here are some suggestions for having groups report out to the larger class:
- Reporting out should add specific value to what they did in breakouts, and you should be clear about why you think this step is important. Some benefits might include:
- Use their responses to demonstrate their personal connections to a topic.
- Show a range of perspectives or interpretations.
- Explore difficult concepts or problems, demonstrating disciplinary ways of thinking through issues or problems.
- If you are addressing a complex problem or scenario, you can have groups address different aspects of the problem and use reporting out to view the whole picture; they benefit from their deep dive as a group into one, but they learn about the other aspects from different groups.
- If you need to address incorrect answers, do so with tact and support—“That’s a common mistake, and one many of us make on this tricky problem. Let’s talk about why you probably got this answer and how we can all learn from it.”
- Make sure you build in adequate time for your reporting out approach, and hold teams to their time limits. You will underestimate the time needed to get to all groups, or even a decent subset of them. Running out of class time for this step undermines all the work they just did in groups, so plan time for it.
- Watching the deliverables forming in a Google Doc or Slide allows you to pick which groups you want to call on, if you cannot get to everyone.
- If you have more groups than can report out, but you aren’t using Docs or Slides, come up with a fun way to randomly select the few you have time for.
- Don’t focus as much on the answers, but on the “why” behind the answers. After making their decisions on an application question, give each group ets 2-3 minutes to share their single most important reason for their decision.
A Final (Important) Suggestion: Practice First
Consider a fairly light activity for the first time students are in breakout rooms, since they need to get used to both the tools and the processes you want to follow. Keep the assignment and deliverable simple this first time, and give them plenty of time to do the work. It may seem like a frivolous use of time, but consider it an investment in smoother work in future class sessions.
Just as importantly, take time to practice with Zoom first, perhaps with colleagues or AIs, so you know how to manage things, both organizationally and technically. Get a small group together to take turns hosting events so you can see what it is like to move into rooms and how to manage things as the instructor.
- How to Make Breakout Rooms Work Better (Chronicle of Higher Education)
- Creating a Google Collaboration in Canvas (Canvas)
- Google Docs: The Basics (IU IT Training)
- Google Slides: The Basics (IU IT Training)
- Teaching Effectively with Zoom (Dan Levy, Harvard University)
- Three Tools to Use in Your Zoom Breakout Rooms (short IU video)
- All You Need to Know about Zoom Breakout Rooms (Zoom blog)
- Zoom Etiquette (CITL Quick Guide)
- Zoom to the Next Level: Active Learning in the Virtual Classroom (IU Pressbook)
- Zoom: Using Breakout Rooms (IU Keep Teaching site)
- Managing Zoom Breakout Rooms (Zoom technical guide)
- Peer Instruction (Rochester Institute of Technology)
Heller, P., and Hollabaugh, M. (1992) Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics 60, 637-644.
Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.
Michaelson, L.K., Fink, L.D., & Knight, A. (1997). Designing effective group activities: Lessons for classroom teaching and faculty development. In Dezure (ed.) To Improve the Academy, Vol 16, pp. 373-398. Stillwater, OK: POD Network.