Breakout Rooms

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collaboratively created by Dr. Nasreen Sultana and Jesslyn Wilkinson

Whether you’re new to the idea of using breakout rooms, or you’ve been using them for a while and are looking for new ways to shake things up, these tips and suggestions can help.

What is a Breakout Room?

A breakout room is a private discussion and screen sharing space within a larger synchronous online meeting. These are typically used in support of smaller group-based learning. Breakout rooms work differently whether you’re in Zoom or Teams. If this is your first time looking into using breakout rooms, visit:

To use breakout rooms the most effectively, you’ll want to make sure your Zoom or Teams apps are fully updated. Start by allowing any update prompts you might encounter.

How can using Breakout Rooms Support Learning?

The ways in which we engage in collaborative learning are increasingly diverse. Synchronous online meetings are a core element of collaborative activities, and offer the chance to give “face to face” interaction to the online learning experience (Sobko, Unadkat, Adams, & Hull, 2020). Time in breakout rooms should be complemented by asynchronous activities, which helps to make sure everyone can contribute when and how they are able.

Be careful in how you prepare students to participate in breakout rooms. Some research suggests that students can get a bit lost or might need help with what to expect when joining or choosing a breakout room (Fitchen et al., 2021). Carefully scaffold learners’ participation in breakout rooms into your instruction.

Before Creating Breakout Rooms

Prepare learners for the activity you’re going to ask them to do. Make sure you clearly explain to students:

  • the process by which they will join the room;
  • how they can ask for help;
  • the expectations for their activity in the room.

For example, you might use a presentation slide to illustrate the process by which learners will be invited into a room. Consider adding one of our example slides below in your own presentations, or adapting it to suit your need. For extra help, direct learners to connect with the Library’s Tech Tutors.

You might also carefully construct a slide to introduce an activity. In the slide:

Example slide to introduce an activity.
  • Be clear and concise in your wording;
  • Emphasize activity deliverables;
  • Set clear time limits;
  • Where possible, use collaborative docs structured as handouts to guide activity and discussion.

To further support learners in staying on task in breakout activities, share your screen into the breakout rooms once the rooms have been opened. This option only appears in your Share Screen menu once breakout rooms have been opened.

Share screen menu, with option to share screen into breakout rooms.
Share screen menu, with option to share screen into breakout rooms. This option appears once breakout rooms are opened.

Assigning Rooms Automatically

Choose to assign rooms automatically when you’d like random assignment. This lets you set up breakout rooms efficiently, and lets learners meet peers, helping to build connections and community.

In Zoom, the Breakout Room window is open, showing 4 rooms preconfigured. The Options menu is selected, and the option to set breakout rooms to close automatically is set to 30 minutes.
Try setting the breakout rooms to close after a specific time, and set a countdown that lets learners wrap up their work.

You can also choose to Recreate breakout rooms, if you’d like to keep the same number of groups, but change up who is speaking with whom.

Try setting up automatic breakout rooms, and also pre-setting time limits on the rooms. This gives learners a timer in the room, so they know what to expect. This also allows the rooms to close automatically, saving you a step or two.

Automatic assignment is probably the most frequently used breakout room set up for most active learning activities. Some favourites are:

Recreating Groups

Choose to use the Recreate option if you’re running a class, and you’d like to automatically build new breakout rooms. This will keep the same number of rooms, but randomize the participants in each, reassigning everyone to new groups.

Breakout rooms not started window, with the Recreate option selected.
Recreating breakout rooms can allow you to efficiently randomize participants, to encourage them to connect with peers.

If you’re choosing to recreate rooms, be mindful of explaining the rationale for the change in group to learners. Some may have formed connections with peers in a group, and may not like being reassigned. Prepare learners that this activity will have them mixing and mingling and support the ways learners choose to engage.

Recreating is best used sparingly when learners are still getting to know each other, and in contexts where varied perspectives and inputs will add value to their learning. Try it out in ice breaker activities where you’d like participants to connect, and recreate no more than one or two times. Be mindful that you pace the activity and use guiding visuals, such as presentation slides with instructions.

You might use the Recreate option in activities like:

Assigning Rooms by Choice

Using choice-based assignment might be best for learners who already feel comfortable with breakout rooms and using Zoom. In some activities, you might want to allow students to select their own breakout room. This supports choice in topics and learner autonomy. As of publication, this feature is not yet available in Teams.

To allow learners to choose their breakout room in Zoom, you can either create new breakout rooms set up for this purpose, or you can enable the feature on existing rooms.

Create breakout rooms with room choice in the main breakout room window, or enable breakout rooms with choice in the options menu when rooms are already created.
Create breakout rooms with room choice, or enable breakout rooms with choice.

Choice can be best used in active learning activities like:

Or consider using choice-based breakout rooms during breaks, to give students a chance to chat with each other.

Pre-Assigning Rooms

You might want to use the same breakout groups over an extended period of time. This is often best used in learning activities like:

  • case studies;
  • courses using the PBL approach;
  • courses where learners collaborate on projects throughout a semester.

Begin by creating the groups. This could be done in many different ways: e.g. pull a class email list from the Employee Portal, or ask students to sign up for their group in a simple Excel file with a few columns – the topic, their name, and their email. Then, download the Breakout Room Pre-Assignment file.

Next, copy over the email addresses into the appropriate rooms in the Breakout Room Pre-Assignment file. You can rename the rooms. Then, upload this into your Zoom meeting. Watch our video to learn how.

Teaching and Learning (2022). Pre-Assigning Breakout Rooms. [2:47]

Joining Breakout Rooms

In order to monitor and supervise students as they engage in breakout room activities, you may want to join the breakout rooms. You can efficiently do this in the Breakout Room window, once the rooms are open.

Breakout rooms in progress menu, with the join option available for each room.
Breakout rooms in progress menu, with the join option available for each room.

If you plan to join rooms in order to support and guide learners, consider some of the following:

  • Inform the learners you’ll be visiting their rooms, as this will let them know what to expect. You’re there to help, first and foremost.
  • Your appearance will be sudden, and this can derail conversation, so consider how you can make your appearance welcome to learners.
  • Remind learners they can call you in for help. Clarify how you will respond if you are already helping someone else.
  • Think carefully about which groups may be in more direct need of support, and join them first. Especially when using pre-assigned groups, following the room list may lead to Room 1 getting more quality time with you, while other groups have less.
  • Consider using shared collaborative docs as handouts, so that you can monitor breakout room activities unobtrusively. This frees you up to intervene where directly required.

References

Fichten, C., Havel, A., Wileman, S., Jorgensen, M., Arcuri, R. Vo, C. & Ruffolo, O. (2021). Digital tools faculty expect students to use during the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2021: Problems and Solutions for Future Hybrid and Blended Courses. Journal of Education and Training Studies. https://doi.org/10.11114/jets.v9i8.5310

Sobko S, Unadkat D, Adams J, Hull G. (2020). Learning through collaboration: A networked approach to online pedagogy. E-Learning and Digital Media 17(1). 36-55.

Jess Wilkinson

Jesslyn is an Educational Technology Consultant at Conestoga. An Ontario Certified Teacher, and holding a B.A. and B.Ed., Jesslyn researches and promotes new technologies for faculty to enhance pedagogical practices. She brings to the role her experience as a Google and Microsoft certified technology trainer and as a classroom teacher in South Korea, Mongolia, and Ontario, focusing on special education and assistive learning technologies. She is available for workshops, consultations, and support with using technology in higher education contexts.

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