Instructional Strategies,  Remote Teaching

Remote Breakout Rooms – Facilitating Small Group Discussions and Interactions with Zoom

The move to remote learning has created challenges for actively engaging students in our classes.  A simple think-pair-share activity now requires extensive descriptions of who is partnered with who, how will you communicate, and how much time do you have – not to mention how to use the available technology to complete the activity.  The truth is – facilitating learning activities and interactions remotely is different, but with some planning still provides our learners with valuable opportunities to engage, think, create and do – to practice and improve the things you want them to learn.

If you are considering delivering any part of your class synchronously – consider actively engaging your learners by creating smaller groups to complete learning activities in breakout rooms (now available in Zoom).  Facilitating breakout room learning activities builds opportunities for connection and interactions that are easily missed when we aren’t in the classroom together. Learning activities are also a way for you to collect feedback about your students’ progress and learning – when the groups come back together have a member from each group report or summarize key points or join different breakout rooms during the learning activity (similar to circulating in a real classroom) to check student progress.  Tip: If you plan to join various groups – let your learners know this in advance and explain you are only there to observe discussions and consider keeping your camera off.

If you are wondering what type of learning activities you could use in breakout rooms – check out this blog post: Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms or this list of active learning strategies for face-to-face teaching that can translate to remote with a bit of imagination (we would love to brainstorm ideas with you) and this post on building community remotely.

Some tips for successful remote breakout activities:

  • Turn on your cameras – distractions are more common when cameras are off. Turning cameras on will increase engagement and minimize distractions in breakout activities.
  • Groupings – there are benefits and challenges to keeping groups the same and changing groups. Consider your purpose in determining if it is best to keep groups the same or change groups.  Generally groupings of 3-5 work best for breakout activities.
  • Provide clear directions – to ensure the best use of time, more is better remotely. Provide clear directions on what should be accomplished during the breakout room activity (eg: each person answers a question in alphabetical order in “x” amount of time).  If possible, also write instructions or share files and videos in the chat box for students to copy or download onto their computers before they head off to their breakout rooms. (How to share content when students are in breakout rooms) 
  • Broadcasting & Student questions – some ideas for using these breakout room functions: broadcasting is a function in zoom that allows you as the facilitator to communicate to breakout rooms.  For group learning activities, you could broadcast the next prompt for discussion, remaining time, or provide new details of a case that is being discussed.  Students are able to send you a “help” request if they have a question, or if they have completed a problem together – they could call you in to share their solution or get feedback on work.
  • Consider Group Roles – to foster engagement and ensure time is well utilized, assign roles within the group. Some ideas of roles are:
    • Facilitator: keeps the group on task and focused – ensures everyone engages in the discussion.  This role can also function as the timer – reminding the group of the time remaining.
    • Recorder: keeps a record of the critical points from the group’s discussion (uses a shared document or the Whiteboard function in Zoom – and shares this with the group)
    • Presenter: presents the group’s ideas to the rest of the class (relies on recorder for notes)
    • Questioner: asks questions to encourage discussion or challenges ideas with questions.


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