Inclusive Teaching, Instructional Continuity, Teaching with Technology, Tips on Teaching

Don’t Forget: Breakout Rooms Require Community, Too

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

In our push to accommodate the needs of students participating in online, hybrid, and remote learning formats, Zoom breakout rooms are consistently promoted as a viable tool to engage and connect students with content, each other, and course activities. The format has even become somewhat institutionalized: we, as instructors, speak for the first 15-20 minutes of class on a course topic, theme, or problem-set and then have students collaborate on a shared assignment or guided questions with some type of general discussion to follow.

Recently, faculty developer Karen Costa posted a YouTube video documenting the problems she observed with breakout rooms while attending a professional development conference. Two key observations stand out: (1) most of those in attendance did not share their cameras; and (2) once individual conference panels went into breakout sessions (or even the mere mentioning of these rooms came up), folks left in droves.

I bring this issue up because it speaks to our Center’s theme this academic year: community. If you want to use Zoom breakout rooms to become a space for meaningful learning and collaboration, we strongly encourage you to do so. But, students need guidance. They need practice and examples. They might need specific roles (e.g., note-takers, presenters). They might even need some type of shared document for your or their own accountability (e.g., a Google doc). Most importantly, they need to know and be comfortable sharing ideas with their fellow classmates. Simply breaking students up randomly into sets of Zoom panes isn’t going to accomplish this.

This is where the concept of community comes in. If students start the process of getting to know each other and have the ability to connect with all of their peers on Day 1 of your class, this will help ease the awkwardness that accompanies being virtually lumped into a breakout room. Organic discussion doesn’t have to start with that first breakout meeting either, it can be cultivated by incorporating introductory discussion boards, student welcome posts, or group discussion boards that get students working together in advance.

It should be pointed out, as Costa notes, that we’re very much guilty of the many problems we, as faculty members, administrators, or educational developers, experience or see in today’s pandemic classroom. This is the point Costa is encouraging us to think about; we push our students (who often have Zoom classes back-to-back) to share their camera feeds or contribute thoughtful discussion in breakout rooms, yet, put in the same place as students, in say a conference or faculty meeting, we exhibit the same behaviors we criticize our students for perpetrating.

Community is important in all aspects of our courses, and very much so when planning and using breakout rooms. Let’s design intentionally from there.