Share this Teaching Tip
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Conestoga College encourages teamwork and collaboration in diverse groups where students can learn from each other. Small group discussions in person or virtually help promote peer-to-peer interaction, critical reflection, and perspective and content sharing. In this short video, we’ll see an example of how Lauren promotes collaborative work through the breakout room tool in Zoom. 

Breakout group sessions may be especially beneficial for students who want to contribute to class discussions and connect with their peers about course content, but who may feel uncomfortable speaking up in a larger group setting. Breakout groups can serve as a “think-pair-share” activity, and often results in greater student engagement as learners have more time to process the questions being asked and consult with others before sharing ideas and opinions with the entire class and the professor.  

What did the faculty (Lauren) do effectively here?

Here are practices that worked well for Lauren. She:

  • Demonstrated the “gradual release of responsibility” model. That is to say, rather than simply provide students instructions and send them off on their own to complete the work with their peers, Lauren first walked the class through the task at hand as a large group and even guided them on how to navigate the pages they’d need to access on an external website.  This helped clarify expectations and gave students an opportunity to practice the task together before doing it in smaller groups without direct guidance from the professor.

  • Made sure to include a slide with clear instructions and shared the slide with all breakout groups. 
  •  Let students know in advance that each group would be sharing “findings” with the larger group after the breakout group sessions wrapped up. She advised each group to elect one member who would be comfortable presenting, while others would take on note-taking duties so they would be better prepared.  

  •  Monitored conversations that were happening in each breakout group—being sure to pop into each room to make sure students had understood the task correctly and to answer any questions that arose.  

  •   Asked the class to reflect on how and why the new content being shared was relevant to their lives/ the world today. This prompt invited students to get to know one another better, to discuss which Sustainable Development Goal meant the most to them and why, and to share perspectives as a group. Providing students with opportunities to draw on previous life experience is a key principle of adult learning.
  • Adapted a classic learning technique (jigsaw) to the online learning environment. While this activity wasn’t a full jigsaw (where each group is assigned a different topic at the outset and the ultimate goal of the lesson is for them to teach one another), many aspects of a jigsaw activity were present.

  • Calling groups in a random order to share post-breakout groups (instead of starting with group 1 and then moving to group 2 and 3 etc.) helps keep students more engaged and ready to contribute.  

What could go wrong? How can faculty manage such occurrences? 

  • Students may not join assigned breakout groups. Though it might appear that all students are in class, sometimes students walk away from their computers and may not be there to “accept” invitations to join zoom breakout rooms. Even though Lauren might create rooms with an equal number of students in each one, some students may end up alone. This is why it’s important for the faculty member to always monitor activity in each room. If a student is alone in their room because others assigned haven’t joined, the faculty member can easily assign that student to another room where they can interact with those who are present.  

  • Students may be silent in the breakout rooms. The faculty member monitoring activity in the breakout groups might notice that some groups are very talkative while others are silent. In some cases, silence is simply a sign that students need time to process quietly before launching into a conversation, but the faculty member would likely want to pop into these “quiet” breakout rooms first just to ensure that learners had understood instructions.   
  • Some group contributions to the “jigsaw” after the breakout group discussions might be more robust than others. The faculty member can try to be sensitive to the fact that some group members may be more comfortable presenting than others, and can validate all ideas that are shared—often asking additional questions of groups who may have less to share to encourage them to reflect more deeply. The faculty member can also scaffold learning with additional information some groups may not have included in their presentations.  

Other Variations to Consider

Here are other things you can do with a jigsaw or other type of breakout group activity.

  • For classes that need more scaffolding, you may share a OneDrive word document or presentation slides with space for each group to use in order to take notes.  This provides further guidance, allowing you to add the instructions and a model into the document for students’ reference.

  • You can encourage the groups to choose their own prompt, as Lauren has done with her subject matter, or you can provide more guidance, identifying a prompt for each group. The decision depends on the type of prompt, the readiness of the class to take initiative, and the relative importance between freedom of choice and the need for particular curriculum to be covered. 
  • A jigsaw is a flexible technique that can be used in many ways: for example, to consider case studies, to scaffold study sessions using the textbook or other course materials, to tackle and share math or other problems. 

Lauren Spring

Lauren Spring, PhD, has been a post-secondary educator since 2012. Before joining Conestoga as a Teaching and Learning Consultant, Lauren taught at Wilfrid Laurier, Brock, Ryerson, York, and the University of Toronto where she also completed her PhD in Adult Education and Community Development. She has also led workshops for students and faculty at colleges and universities across the country. Lauren holds an MA in International Development and has expertise in critical disability and mad studies, trauma work, research-based theatre, role-play simulations, and feminist and arts-based approaches to adult education and community engagement. Lauren has also worked as an educator at the Art Gallery of Ontario since 2008 where she designs and delivers art tours and workshops for elementary and high school students and diverse groups of adult learners.

Did you find what you are looking for? How easy was it to find what you are looking for?
Enter your email if you'd like us to contact you regarding with your feedback.
Thank you for submitting your feedback!