Dividing students into small groups is common in both on-campus and live online teaching. It facilitates improved student interaction, as participants have more opportunities to familiarise themselves with peers, and contribute to smaller discussions and activities. These small groups are usually referred to as ‘Breakout groups’ in live online teaching, and they may present logistical and design challenges that require some planning and consideration.
Things to consider before using breakout groups
- Online breakout groups require familiarity with your platform (Bb Collaborate, Microsoft Teams meetings). The dynamics of grouping and observing can be different to on-campus classrooms.
- Practice setting-up and managing groups before utilising with your students.
- Keep things simple, build your familiarity over time.
- Orientating your students to working in this type of environment and to working with each other; will make it a more manageable and less anxious experience for them.
- Use small informal activities that allow them to socialise as a class.
- Build up to more challenging tasks when groups are established and comfortable working together.
Plan your breakout groups. Give your breakout group activity a clear purpose and structure that can be easily communicated to students. Think about what you are trying to get your students to learn, is there something you want as an output from the activity?
- You may want to design a formative assessment as part of a series of breakout group activity, to motivate students towards an objective.
- It may not always be appropriate to utilise breakout groups.
- Consider the learning benefits in relation to session objectives; what are your students getting out of the activity? If you can’t think of something definitive, another type of activity may be more appropriate. See TEL toolkit: Designing Learning Activities for inspiration and alternatives.
How can I encourage my students to engage with breakout groups?
A significant concern is when students do not engage with one another in breakout groups. For example, if they will not talk to each other or choose to sit in silence rather than getting involved with their breakout room task. This is a complicated issue that could have a variety of causes, such as anxiety, feeling unprepared, a lack of task understanding, and unfamiliarity with their group members.
There isn’t a straightforward solution for this, but session leaders can help to scaffold the students engagement to enhance their confidence and understanding to participate with the breakout group task and members.
- Establish expectations and remind regularly.
- Aim to use the same groups regularly in your module.
- Students need early socialisation with their peers to participate confidently.
- Consider creating groups on Blackboard for some asynchronous activity, your students will engage better in live breakout groups if they already know the other group members.
- Random groups can have their place for one-off or more informal socialisation activity, but be aware these can make some students anxious or fatigued if overused.
- Create roles in the groups, elect a spokesperson for feedback after the task, is there someone that should screenshare or take notes?
- Make the task clear and focused.
- Create a slide that outlines the task for students, you may want to send these to the group once the activity has started as a reference.
- Give plenty of time for students to digest the task, settle in, introduce/catch up with one another and then proceed with the activity. You may need 20-40 minutes depending on the task.
- Is there an output required? Prepare students in advance of the session, letting them know what the session entails and what is required.
- Trigger questions for quiet groups.
- If you go into a group to observe their progress/discussion and find they are quiet, have some questions prepared that can prompt engagement. Try to encourage rather than discipline.
- Check in regularly with your students informally to understand how they feel about the tasks they are doing, what does and does not work.
Where can I find practical guidance about setting up and deploying breakout groups?
If you’d benefit from downloading a copy of this guide and checklist, you can download it here: Supporting students with breakout groups.
Before the session
|Plan your activity||Notes|
||What are you expecting your students to produce during the activity and how will it be collected?|
||Will you do group feedback/presentations?|
|Decide between assigned or random allocation||Are you using established groups or random groups for this activity?|
|Decide on the time needed for the breakout rooms||Allow plenty of time for socialisation and work|
|Prepare your students|
||Tell them on Blackboard about the upcoming session|
||Signpost to screencasts/reading they need to do|
||This may affect the group dynamics during the activity|
During the session
|Create your rooms/groups||Notes|
|Allocate students when they are in the session||You may prefer to do this as students enter or you may decide to wait until just before the task to make the groups.|
|Share a slide with the task and talk through it||What are you asking students to do?
How much time do they have?
What will they be expected to come back with?
Will you be doing class feedback?
|Identify group spokespersons||You could ask them to decide who is the spokesperson or you could assign them.|
|Start your breakout groups||Ask them to indicate their readiness
Give a short countdown
|Share task as file with groups as a reminder|
|Drop into the groups to gauge progress, encourage participation||Have those encouraging questions ready if groups are quiet|
|Towards end, send warning to groups that the activity is ending||You could use chat or an announcement|
|Close the breakout rooms||Remind students to return to normal class behaviours|
|Ask spokespersons to raise hand and commence feedback segment|
|Collect informal feedback on activity||Ask them how it went and if anything would improve it|