Three top tips for teaching with breakout rooms
The use of breakout rooms in online learning has followed the trajectory of a rollercoaster ride over the last few years. During the pandemic their use rose steeply, with many viewing them as the obvious online alternative to encourage small group, student-to-student dialogue. However, many business schools experienced problems in operation from both a student and staff perspective ) and their use started to plummet quickly.
As business schools move away from ‘emergency’ teaching and have more time to reflect, this blog shares tips for the use of breakout rooms for continuing synchronous online learning, using findings from a research project I undertook into understanding the learning taking place in breakout rooms and combining this with my own experiences and ideas for improving breakout room learning. These are as follows:
- Set a clear task and have a mechanism to test this clarity.
One of the key success factors identified for breakout rooms was having a clear task. This may seem obvious, but an interesting finding from Douglas (2023) was a perception difference between students and staff regarding if a clear task had been set. Reflecting on this personally, I always felt I set a clear task when using breakout rooms but when I went into each breakout room, did the students always know exactly what they were meant to be doing? Hmmm, maybe not! Whether this was due to the task not being clear or another reason (we’ve all been guilty of a bit of multitasking and then wondering what the question was in online sessions) is unsure, but either way, small effective mechanisms can help here:
- Have the task written down on a slide or similar – share this in the chat for reference or encourage students to take a photo or screen shot.
- Train and encourage students on using available ‘call for help’ tools if they are unsure.
- Have an ‘at a glance’ way to determine understanding, such as a shared document or Padlet. The first column could even be: ‘Is the task clear?’ or ‘Summarise what you are required to do?’
- Avoid the dreaded ‘Discuss….’
As well as a clear task, students also preferred a specific task (Douglas, 2023). There are lots of ways a ‘Discuss…’ can be easily turned into a specific task. Some ideas include:
- Summarise a concept/journal as a twitter post which each group can post into the chat box on their return.
- Create a jingle/rhyme to remember a key concept (students have positively surprised me with this one).
- Or even just completing a Google form or similar with the arguments for and against, or a PowerPoint slide representing the arguments with pictures.
- Visit breakout rooms and have a mechanism to be able to prioritise these visits.
Students wanted tutors to visit breakout rooms, with the main reason being to get the conversation going (Douglas, 2023). Many tutors from business schools will have faced the challenge of how to achieve this when there is one of you and a high number of students. My thoughts here, are to have a way to prioritise. This may include using a collaborative document, as mentioned before. This can quickly identify a group which isn’t completing it and which requires support via a visit. Encouraging any student to use the call for help button can also be useful. It is worth explaining to a class that others in the group won’t know this has been done, so anyone can do this to get the tutor to visit and the tutor won’t share who the caller was. Notwithstanding this, it is still a good idea to try and visit all groups, which could be over the course of a session if a few breakout rooms are planned. This does however require an organised visit schedule and good time management.
Dr Shonagh Douglas BA CA FHEA PhD, Accounting and Finance Senior Lecturer, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University
McGrath, L. and Wolstencroft, P. (2021). ‘’I want to break free’’ : How online breakout rooms have become a modern educational curse, CABS Blog, available at “I want to break free”: How online breakout rooms have become a modern educational curse - Chartered Association of Business Schools (charteredabs.org) (accessed 12 April 2023)
DOUGLAS, S. 2023. Achieving online dialogic learning using breakout rooms. Research in learning technology [online], 31, article number 2882. Available from: https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v31.2882