online breakout rooms

Breakout rooms in virtual classrooms: why and how

Teaching Trends and Best Practices

One of the biggest “real life” equivalents often missing from online learning is the ability to easily split students into smaller groups. Non-online teachers have traditionally used breakout rooms, meaning that they physically divided their students into groups. It inspired creativity and facilitated peer-to-peer participation, or even peer-to-peer tutoring and mentoring. The process can also give the instructor a chance to teach a concept to a smaller group first before bringing it to the entire classroom.

One of my favorite parts about working in a virtual classroom is splitting the attendees into small groups. They all seem to be united in the excitement. Some like putting their heads together to get creative, some like the opportunity to mentor other students, and some like being able to flag me down with a question but otherwise try to figure out something themselves. I suspect some also like the break from routine.

As an instructor who has long been interested in exploring the potential of online learning, I thought the group experience would be lost if I went digital. Asking people to break up into small groups and then bring everyone back to the main group definitely seemed a technical challenge. Workarounds seemed to require communicating to the entire group at once or separately to individuals. Students wanting to talk with me directly or other students must send private messages or post in forums where all students can follow.

But when I dug deeper and connected with other expert online instructors, I began to realize the functionality and practicality of online breakout rooms. These work exactly like physical groups in offline settings. The term breakout room meaning that groups of students can be assigned to a separate room for a certain project, and then everyone reports back. These breakout sessions offer online classroom tools, such as a virtual blackboard or whiteboard to jot down notes that everyone in the room can see, plus the ability for every member to interact and text each other. It’s worthwhile new method. If you’re looking for useful breakout room ideas, try these suggestions:

Break the ice with breakout rooms

The start of a new class can be exciting in a traditional classroom, not just from the new knowledge heading your way, but the opportunity to interact with fellow students. Some of you may have known from past classes or others you’ve just met. Until the instructor did that loud “teacher” whistle to begin the day’s lesson, it was fun just chatting, But with the advent of online education, social interactions seemed to minimize as teachers began to focus squarely on the instruction. But with breakout rooms, social aspects can still be a part of overall cohesion and the learning experience with icebreakers in the breakout sessions. You may want to follow these to break the ice:

  • ask each student to share something interesting about themselves with their group. Topics can include the basics of where they live and why they’re in this particular course.
  • rotate students from group to group after a few minutes or in each session so everyone has a chance to meet each other.
  • gather students together at the end into one class and offer a non-graded quiz on who’s who. This is a fun way to reinforce people’s names and backgrounds for students and instructors.

Break out of the box with breakout rooms

Imagine an unlimited size classroom – what teacher wouldn’t like that? Desks can be easily configured in many combinations. Remember, how large spaces can help students learn in different ways. But it’s possible even during online sessions. In fact, you can actually think beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. Since no classroom or student is the same, breakout rooms can assist all sorts of student needs and wants. Maybe a group of bright students could work on related problems while the instructor spends additional time with students who may need extra attention. This keeps the former group challenged and not bored or impatient waiting for everyone to catch up. It could also provide the latter group with more attention and reduce their risk of falling and remaining behind. In addition,

  • the instructor can also split the groups into other combinations to work on shared tasks or even competitive challenges using everyone’s abilities. Students competing against groups in other breakout rooms can also be assured that their answers won’t be observed or overheard.
  • you can also pop into rooms to see how everyone is doing, give clarification or be available as needed.

Break monotony and promote self-direction

Traditional or newer teachers may prefer the basic model of being in front of the class and sharing knowledge, even in online settings. But more advanced educators or those who may want to experiment can consider using breakout rooms for breaking the monotony and promote self-direction. Easy innovations can include:

  • each group receives the same topic to discuss or a challenge to solve. When the groups come back together, everyone can share their approach and what they learned.
  • each group receives different parts of a similar project, such as a separate chapter of the same book. Then they can give a summary or interpretation to the main group. This way, students can work their way through more material with each other’s assistance, instead of everyone slowly moving through every chapter of a novel or textbook individually.
  • offer an assessment at the end, based on how well students understood the material they learned from their peers. If they were given a challenge, follow this by asking which approach worked well.

The hands-off experience can provide students with a better sense of accomplishment and collaboration by letting them do much of the work themselves. It also can be handy when the time is valuable, such as a shorter summer session when a teacher may have less time to convey several lessons.

Break from instructor-learner hierarchy

Instead of being just a one-way instructor, you can use the breakout rooms to make sure everyone figures out the required information. By splitting up the class with giving shared tasks, you can inspire attendees to dig deeper and push harder within themselves. Remember the “Dead Poet’s Society”? A 1989 movie. Robin Williams portraying an English teacher, John Keating, at a stuffy prep school, who applied unusual teaching methods to connect and inspire students. Rather than sharing the same old dull curriculum that every other teacher did, Keating focused on making sure his students could channel their inner discipline and creative drive to become strong leaders. Willing and eager to seize the day – and help each other along the way.

  • In online breakout settings, attendees can help each other figure out solutions. And, you as an instructor are available for questions or technical challenges.
  • Learners can also take on the role of mentors as well. This setting can be ideal for active instructors or instructors-in-training seeking new instruction methods. Different students can take turns trying to educate each other and then receive instant feedback from fellow students and instructors.

As in Keating’s classroom, instead of merely absorbing information, they’ll learn how to process it, incorporate it and share it.

Search for multiple answers and multiple roles

Even if every group is given the same problem, attendees can still brainstorm different ways to solve it. Whether or not a solution is found, they can still come back and discuss their methodology. To an instructor, the exercise could be a good way to observe group dynamics and how well all students followed the process and tested theories, not necessarily if they all came up with similar outcomes. This effort could also incorporate role playing. An instructor can give different personas related to the current lessons to the different groups. Students can focus on learning more about these personas in their lessons. Then they can show off their roles when they come into the main online classroom.

Conclusion: The above five suggestions show online instructors and even students seeking innovative online education options that there’s no shortage of opportunities to get creative. Some programs may be limited by the type of software in use or availability of bandwidth. But even institutions with limited resources can come up with ways to offer useful online programs. For instance, if a school isn’t able to use streaming video conferencing, it can still use text messaging. The students themselves may be able to come up with fun suggestions to get creative, especially when they start to imagine the potential methods of learning when using breakout rooms. Longtime instructors may also enjoy adapting traditional group approaches, but with new digital parameters.

Even online educators who advocate digital breakout room sessions will be quick to tell you that they’re only as good as the instructor. Instructor preparation is vital, not just in the technology aspect, such as creating and maintaining the rooms, but the traditional teaching part, like planning out lessons and activities, making sure everyone has supplies and figuring out assessment methods. It’s also not a bad idea to plan ahead for the worst. For instance, what happens if the breakout rooms don’t work or there are other major or minor technical problems?

Test out how breakout rooms work in WizIQ Virtual Classroom. Start your free trial now.


Shivani Sharma

Content Manager at WizIQ. A writer, editor, planner and executor by the day, and a reader during commute to and from work. Skilled at writing simple. More than anything, a FOODIE!

4 thoughts on “Breakout rooms in virtual classrooms: why and how

    1. Hi Namita,

      Thank you for writing in. We will share your feedback with our tech team.

      WizIQ Team

  1. Hi Shivani,

    This is a problem that has held me back from teaching groups online.
    I would be interested to hear how you work this technically.

    1. Hi Kenneth,

      Thank you for writing. Are you using WizIQ? Can you tell us in detail about the problem you’re facing when using breakout rooms? We would be happy to assist you.

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