Some types of active learning are far more effective and manageable in small groups: discussion, collaboration and problem-solving are just a few examples. Active learning in small groups is a great way to facilitate student engagement. When teaching online and synchronously in Zoom, hosts and co-hosts can use the Breakout Room tool to split students into separate Zoom meeting spaces where they can talk and work together in small groups.
How to Get Started
1. Determine your goal(s) for using Breakout Rooms.
These articles (Fostering Deeper Discussion in Breakout Rooms and Tips to Increase Student Engagement in Zoom Breakout Rooms) discuss how using Zoom breakout rooms can be a powerful tool for online learning. You might use them, for example, to:
- Foster a sense of community in a large class by allowing students time to get to know each other and network in small groups.
- Provide a less intimidating environment for more reluctant students to speak out.
- Provide an opportunity to discuss course content through simple reflection; brainstorming and generating ideas to bring back to the larger group; or working through a case study related to the day’s topic.
- Provide an opportunity for work on collaborative projects.
2. Identify and practice the Breakout Room assignment strategy that will best fit your classroom and goal(s), and the steps for managing breakout rooms.
Would it be useful to group quieter students together so that they are not drowned out by more vocal students? Do you want to re-use the same groupings from meeting to meeting? It is recommended that you put no fewer than 3 people in a room at a time; putting just 2 in runs the risk of one of them having stepped away from the session, leaving the other alone in the room. Note: you can always manually move a student into a different group, regardless of the initial assignment method chosen.
You have five options for creating breakout rooms. Find detailed instructions for each in Zoom support article on managing breakout rooms.
- Let Zoom assign students automatically (i.e., randomly) to breakout rooms during a meeting – appropriate for informal or ad hoc discussion groups during class, when you don’t care about who is talking with whom, such as think-pair-share or a brainstorming session.
- Assign students manually to breakout rooms during a meeting. This can be time-consuming, so most appropriate in smaller classes.
- Allow participants choose a breakout room. You can name the rooms by topic or by student group name (if you have them) and students sort themselves appropriately when you open the rooms.
- Used saved breakout room assignments from a previous instance of a recurring meeting.
- Pre-assign students to breakout rooms before the meeting begins. You might choose this if you have a large class and set groups, especially groups that you want to maintain from class meeting to class meeting. Get detailed instructions for this option in Zoom support article on pre-assigning participants to breakout rooms and DELTA’s help document on pre-assigned breakout rooms.
3. Take important steps to avoid issues and navigate a few Breakout Room quirks.
General Breakout Room Considerations and Troubleshooting
- Do not count on the main room chat going with students into their breakout rooms. (It does not happen with some operating systems/devices.) If you want to communicate with your students in breakout rooms, use the “Broadcast Message to All” feature, or, from the main session, share content (your screen, app, audio, etc.) to the breakout rooms.
- If you want your participants to be able to screen share, annotate, and chat in Breakout Rooms, make sure that ability is enabled (under the Security Icon) before starting the Breakout Rooms.
- Cloud recording only records the main room, so be sure to pause any cloud recording when your students are in breakout rooms.
Pre-assigned Breakout Room Limitations
- If you pre-assign with a .csv file, you must format the file according to this template (click to download).
- Students must sign into your Zoom session with the same email as you have used to pre-assign them to their breakout rooms in order for Zoom to assign them correctly.
- If you have a recurring meeting set up, you must select “Edit All” (not edit one occurrence) in order to pre-assign breakout rooms for that meeting.
- You can’t make more than one set of pre-assigned groups per meeting.
Give students clear directions about what to discuss in breakout rooms
Unclear directions mean that time will be wasted trying to figure out what they are supposed to be talking about. If your instructions are extensive, write them up in a Google Doc, the link to which you share in the chat. Encourage students to click the link before going into a breakout room; in some cases (perhaps dependent upon the operating system), the chat from the main meeting room does not follow participants to their breakout rooms.
Hosts can also share their screen and audio to all breakout rooms to guide them on the next steps or tasks. Simply click “Screen share” in the main room, enable “Share to breakout rooms” at the bottom of the share window, select “share sound” if desired, and click “Share.” Any active shares in any breakout rooms will be interrupted; annotation is saved before the shared content is viewed.
Consider pairing technologies with Breakout Rooms that facilitate collaboration and capture discussions
Advantages to this include:
- You can refer to the document(s) students worked on back in the main session, and students will have the linked resource to take with them after they leave class.
- You, as the instructor, can provide comments and feedback to students on their work after class.
- You can monitor progress during breakout sessions. Dr. Sarah Egan Warren, Head of Technical Communication at the Institute for Advanced Analytics, reports that by using Google Docs, “I was able to read the notes on the Google doc as they were being generated. I could see the common themes emerging across the breakout rooms. I could also gauge when things were naturally winding down. When I called the students back to the main Zoom room, I was able to ask leading questions based on the themes I noted. Then, when I wanted to encourage the larger group to engage in a discussion, I was able to ask better questions than “who wants to share what they discussed in their breakout room?’
- Everyone can contribute. Dr. Warren also reports: “Using the Google doc allowed all members of the class to contribute equally. Anyone could add to the Google doc at any time. As a result, our extroverted learners did not dominate the conversation and our introverted learners had time to compose thoughts and contribute.”
- These documents heightens accountability. If students know their work will be able to be viewed by others, they may put in more effort.
Other possible technology you could pair with Breakout Rooms are Google Jamboard or Padlet; see this video for a demonstration of Padlet). Note, Padlet is not an NC State enterprise tool, but a free account allows you a limited number of Padlets.
Be clear about what students should expect
How long will they have in the breakout rooms? Will you or a co-host be popping in to ask questions or observe their conversation? How long of a warning will they get before breakout rooms close? What will they be asked to do once they are back in the main room?
Consider what level of involvement is appropriate for you or a TA to have in the actual breakout rooms
Hosts can co-hosts can view the level of activity in each breakout room from the main session, but you must enable this in your Zoom settings [under In Meeting (Advanced) > Breakout room]. You’ll be able to see the video and audio status, active screen shares, and active non-verbal reactions in the Breakout Room window. Participants will be alerted before joining if you have this turned on.
The host, and a co-host who started the breakout rooms will (if applicable) remain in the main room until they join a room manually. The “Broadcast a message” tool will send a very brief note to all breakout rooms, and students can call the host into a room with the “Ask for Help” button. Note that if the host starts breakout rooms and assigns a co-host (a TA, perhaps) to a breakout room, the co-host can then pop from room to room to assist as needed.
Should you join rooms if you are not called in? Dr. Sarah Egan Warren, Head of Technical Communication at the Institute for Advanced Analytics, finds that “the sudden appearance of the instructor in the breakout room causes a disruption and halts the conversation.” Instead, she monitors breakout room progress from the main room, using the collaborative Google doc or set of slides students are working on during their discussion.
You can use Breakout Rooms in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes:
To break the virtual ice. Interacting online is not always comfortable, and speaking out in large group meetings is even less so. A breakout room first thing in your class session for a very informal discussion can help students get talking, and the comfort they gain in that first activity can carry into the rest of the session.
To prime students to learn. Activate prior knowledge, or set the stage for today’s topic by putting students in breakout rooms to either review something that was covered in past course meetings, or discuss something they prepared for today’s meeting. You might consider pairing with Google Forms in this case. Create and share a questionnaire or survey in Google Forms that supports the day’s learning objectives, or to let students share perspectives, and share the link in the chat. Keep the responses anonymous (don’t collect email addresses of respondents). Once students have responded, share your screen to show the graphs and tables with responses. Ask students, in groups, to summarize the data or otherwise discuss the results. View this video for more ideas about pairing Google Forms and Breakout Rooms
For a think/pair*/share. Pose a thought-provoking question, and give students a few minutes to think/write an answer. Put them in breakout rooms (automatic; 3 per room) to discuss their thoughts. Bring them back to the main session and have a few groups share what they discussed. *It is recommended that you put no fewer than 3 people in a room at a time; putting just 2 in runs the risk of one of them having stepped away from the session, leaving the other alone in the room.
To work through case studies.
To let students prepare to lead a discussion. Send students to breakout rooms for small discussions, each on a different topic. Let each group lead the discussion on that topic back in the main session. Or, use the jigsaw technique to create new breakout rooms where one person from each original group is in each new group and is the “expert” on a topic. Suggestion: Create a Google Slide deck and let each group create a slide on their topic (here is a template; clicking on this link will prompt you to make your own copy for editing).
To work on group projects.
See this article from Portland Community College for some more great examples.
- DELTA. (2020) Breakout Rooms and How To Use Them To Support Student Engagement [Workshop Recording; ~32 minutes].
- DELTA (6/8/2021) Break Out Rooms and Small Group Work
- Zoom. (2022, March 11). Using Breakout Rooms During a Meeting (Video; 5 min 33 sec)
- Zoom. (2022, March 11). Breakout Room Pre-Assign (Video, 3 min 41 sec)
- Zoom (2020, September 9). All you need to know about using zoom breakout rooms.
- DELTA. (2020, September) Create and use pre-assigned rooms in Zoom.
- Zoom. (2022, May 5). Managing breakout rooms
- Zoom. (n.d.). Pre-assigning participants to breakout rooms
- Zoom. (n.d.). Participating in breakout rooms (including self-selecting)
Related Teaching Resources Page
- Anderson, J. and Gant, S. (2020, September 25). Fostering Deeper Discussions using Zoom Breakout Rooms. DELTA News.
- Kaminski, G. (2020, November). Creating Connection via Zoom: Better Breakout Rooms
- Stannard, R. (2020, April 2). Zoom-Make the lessons more student-centered-Practical Ideas [Video].
- TeachHUB. (2016, October 18). The Jigsaw Method Teaching Strategy
- Google Docs – Here is a Google Doc template you can use or adapt for your purposes. (Clicking the link will prompt you to make your own copy for editing.)
- Google Slides – Here is a Google Slides template you can use or adapt for your purposes. (Clicking on the link will prompt you to make your own copy for editing.)
- Google Jamboard