Breakout sessions in online synchronous discussions

8 May 2020

An earlier post explored asynchronous discussion, but synchronous discussion has been an important part of this term as well. Students value the opportunity to connect with faculty and peers during synchronous meetings. Breakout rooms are a key element of making these sessions engaging and encouraging more interaction in a large class. Breakout rooms work best when expectations are clear and activities are carefully structured to make sure the experience is productive for students.  Without much structure, students can flounder. 

Colleagues have shared a couple of techniques that work well with breakout rooms. One successful approach is to provide students with a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides that guides the activities of the small group and can be accessed by everyone. In particular, designating a representative from each breakout room as the recorder for the group and asking that student to write down the group’s key discussion points on the shared Google Doc allows the faculty member to see where groups are, even if the faculty member is not in a particular breakout room. In addition, a shared Google Doc can allow groups to see what others are discussing. Other colleagues note that switching up the size of groups in breakout rooms (from pairs to larger groups) prevents discussions from falling into a rut. 

Liz Raleigh (Sociology) has bypassed using Zoom breakout rooms altogether because, at times, students would get disconnected from their small group Zoom breakout room and were hesitant to rejoin. Liz assigns students clearly defined roles within their group and has students set up their own small group synchronous meetings. Here Liz explains her approach: 

I preassign students into small groups for synchronous sessions (no more than twice a week on a M/W/F schedule). I think it feels more intimate since there are at most 4 people in a group. I then zoom in at a designated time….In order for the group to run smoothly, I make a power point of discussion questions and an accompanying video to explain what I want them to do.

One thing I like about having students take control of the small group is that I can delegate some class work. I use a random team generator to move students into different groups, and they know if they have a 1 next to their name, they are the organizer and thus in charge of setting up their team’s zoom link. If a student with poor wifi has trouble, they can just call in and the bar to participate doesn’t feel as high [as compared to] calling into the big group. 2s are the facilitators tasked with making sure people participate, 3s report out when I visit. 

Here is an example of the type of PowerPoint slides that Liz prepares to clearly set forth expectations for the groups. Feedback from Liz’s students about this approach has been positive.

What have you tried to make small group breakout discussions more effective?