Breakout Rooms: Useful or Useless?

As we enter year two of Zoom University, the concept of “breakout rooms” has spread far and wide. There are two common dynamics seen in these breakout rooms: one environment where everyone is communicating and actively learning, and the other being the most likely iteration—dead silence and black screens. It’s no question that silence during group work time is unideal and definitely not intended by instructors. However, it happens anyway, and for a variety of reasons: confusion, shyness, apathy, or maybe someone tried to open up a discussion and was met with silence.

There can also be breakout room failures related to instructors. For example, if an instructor does not have the teaching team to support visiting breakout rooms in a timely manner, students are more likely to become frustrated and give up. In addition, if this teaching team (usually fellow students who are course assistants) isn’t adequately prepared for the task being worked on, they don’t provide a ton of useful information or assistance. Finally, because only the host of a Zoom meeting can see when a breakout room “calls for help,” there are often student frustrations related to a lack of response from the teaching team.

If breakout rooms so commonly fail to meet expectations, why are instructors still opting to use them? For one, it may be they can’t think of a better alternative. Zoom breakout rooms are widespread at this point, and it’s tempting to go along with the trend and common tools as opposed to developing your own strategy. Another important thing to consider is there are strategies to implement that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of breakout rooms. If measures are taken to maximize learning and respond to student feedback, breakout rooms become less of a flop. Some of these strategies are as follows:

1. Work for shorter breakout rooms with more intervention

With frequent check-ins and shorter activities, students feel more engaged in the class as a whole. In addition, students may feel their success matters more when their comprehension is more frequently checked.

2. Adequately prepare the teaching team for the assignments being given

A relatively common occurrence in my own classes is learning assistants (LAs) or teaching assistants (TAs) not being entirely sure if an answer I’ve presented is right or wrong. Without certainty from these student members of the teaching team, students not only lose confidence in them, but also feel farther disconnected from their professors. After all, if professors aren’t preparing the teaching team, how can they prepare their students?

3. Encouraging students to set group standards

A final easy strategy to implement for instructors is encouraging students to set “group norms,” or standards for how they want their breakout room to go. This allows more timid students that may want to collaborate to speak up and assert their wants without feeling like they are overstepping their boundaries.

Overall, Zoom breakout rooms seem to be either hit or miss. However, as the pandemic continues, there are certain strategies that can be implemented to make breakout rooms (at least) slightly more effective. As this falls to the instructor, there’s not a whole lot students themselves can do to improve their experience. This is without a doubt frustrating, and just another thing to worry about during these uncertain times. Despite this, many schools and professors offer chances to provide feedback, and knowing how to provide feedback is the first step in making a change. If given the opportunity, fight for your quality of education and try suggesting some of the tips above.