Breakout Groups in the Online Classroom: Common Missteps and Effective Methods

For small group discussions to be effective, instructors need to be clear on what they hope to accomplish, and students need to be clear on what is expected of them. This is especially true in a digital environment where instructors don’t have the benefit of scanning a classroom to get a sense of how group dialogues are going. To set instructors up for success, we’ve identified common missteps and effective methods for facilitating online discussions when using virtual breakout rooms. 

Facilitating Effective Breakout Group Discussions

Most popular video conferencing tools—such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and Google Meet—have the option to create breakout rooms so that meeting attendees can engage in small group conversations. How can instructors ensure that these breakout groups are set up for success?

First, here are three common missteps when it comes to facilitating breakout room discussions:

  1. Lack of Preparation. When instructors forget to define their desired outcomes before class, they risk confusing their students or setting students up for a meandering discussion. Similarly, students are more likely to fully engage in a discussion if they have been asked to research or think about a topic in advance.
  1. Conversational Anarchy. Structure creates clarity and safety for students. Without a clear discussion format or guidelines, small groups can simply become platforms for the loudest voices or the biggest personalities to get uninterrupted stage time.
  1. No Follow-Up. The learning process doesn’t stop once breakout rooms have been closed. In addition to the value of sharing ideas and problem-solving with their peers, students need dedicated time to reflect back on the experience and give voice to what they learned through the discussion itself. 

So how can you effectively address these pitfalls and facilitate effective breakout room discussions?

  1. Provide Focused Goals or Deliverables. Giving students an objective and preparing them to share their findings with the rest of the class helps conversations to stay on target. This can be as simple as instructing students to present an answer to a question or a solution to a problem. Depending on the topic, students could even be given a set of possible answers or solutions to choose from. 
  1. Define the Rules of Engagement. Instructors can take the route of naming discussion best practices, such as giving everyone an allotted time to share, appointing a facilitator within the small group to keep everyone on track, and keeping disagreements civil. Another way to accomplish the same goals is to give students a discussion structure that inherently encourages a balanced dynamic. One example is “jigsaw” groups where each student is assigned a different topic to research. When the class comes together, each breakout group has one “expert” per topic, and each person needs to present their piece of information in order to accomplish the assignment set by the instructor. 
  1. Use a Large Group Discussion to Name the Main Takeaways. Depending on your discussion structure, this last step may already be built in. If it is not, the instructor can intentionally create space for students to report back on the conversations they just had. This also gives the instructor the opportunity to summarize what was learned, highlight any key insights, and present a next step—even if that just means helping students connect their learnings to the next course topic or to their future work. 

To help students prepare for breakout groups, instructors can benefit from having a comprehensive educational software platform in place. Ideally, it will provide students with a single location where they can see their materials and assignments in real time and prepare to contribute meaningfully to discussions. To learn how Leo, our enterprise software platform, can streamline your class organization, contact us today