Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement

Despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic summer, I was provided with numerous opportunities to facilitate online courses and professional development, as well as one chance to work with a digital writing summer camp for middle school students. There were many models for these sessions, from a one-day event where we hosted about 60 participants to a two-week institute in which we worked with nearly 30 educators for just over three hours each morning to a one-week institute with a facilitation team of over a dozen and nearly 150 participants.

For the most part — both because I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to managing webinars and (at least I would like to think) because my main goal for working with other educators is to smooth out the roadblocks and provide space for others to lead — I was in charge of making many, many breakout rooms via Zoom. And, for many participants, being whisked away to (and back from) a Zoom breakout room still feels a bit like techno-magic (mostly, I would assume, because they are usually in the “attendee” role in a meeting, not the “host” role). Throughout the summer I made rooms of 2 or 3 based on Zoom’s random assignment all the way to rooms of 20+ where participants “renamed” themselves with room numbers and chose the session they wanted.

And, with nearly every session, as I collaborated with numerous colleagues this summer, the question was repeated many times: “Troy, how did you do that?”

Preparing to Move to Breakout Rooms: Technical and Teaching Considerations

There are, as with most inquiries about teaching with technology, two answers to that question. The technical answer, once one has had some experience in the “host” role of the Zoom meeting, is relatively straight-forward, and their help desk article (with video) is actually quite instructive. There are also many, many videos on YouTube that show you the logistics of how to set up and control the rooms, from an educator’s perspective, including this one from Simpletivity that shows some of the additional features for hosts as they set up and move from room-to-room (from about 6:00 to the end). For the technical answers, I would encourage you to look to these resources from others who have answered the questions in a much clearer manner than I could do so again here.

These technical steps, however, are not what I think most teachers are asking about. Instead, they are likely asking about how we prepare for, move to, facilitate, and return from the rooms, setting up a brief instructional arc that relies on collaborative learning and protocols to guide group activity and discussion. Many other talented educators are puzzling through this same set of questions, including the Stanford Teaching Commons, Elizabeth Stone, Catlin Tucker, and Tricia Ebarvia. Also, early in the pandemic, I was directed to Mural’s “Definitive Guide To Facilitating Remote Workshops,” which has some good tips. From all these educators, I add to the common theme: before even considering small group work, especially in virtual settings, we need to have clear structures in place, both for the entire class session and for what happens in breakout rooms.

Sometimes these rooms are assigned randomly, especially for low-stakes tasks where I want participants to talk with someone they likely would not choose to work with otherwise. Sometimes these rooms are assigned, strategically, by me, without much input from them at all (and, perhaps, I might even tell them that the assignments were random!). Finally, there are times where I want participants to make a choice and let me know where they would prefer to go, offering them a voice in their learning.

Two quick tips for having participants choose rooms (or, suggest where they want to go). First, you can have a shared Google Doc for notetaking and, when it is time for them to choose rooms, insert a table for the number of rooms you plan to assign, and have participants write their name in the preferred cell of the table. Second, if you have enabled the capability in your host settings, participants can “rename” themselves to put a room number or name in front of their own name. In fact, I would make the case that having participants rename themselves with their preferred number makes the assigning of breakout rooms much easier for the host, and this is quickly becoming my preferred method.

With these logistics for moving them to rooms in mind, we now consider the tasks in which we would want them to engage.

Tasks for Successful Breakout Room Contributions

All of these options require successful teaching strategies to be in place, and two of my go-to resources for finding protocols for getting students to wrestle with ideas include the National School Reform Faculty’s Protocols and Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines. Being familiar with a number of these strategies — and being able to adapt them quickly in virtual settings — is helpful. They can be adapted in many ways, and groups can work in shared GDocs or GSlides, or Padlet walls, or through other collaborative tools, sometimes with some pre-session setup, yet often on-the-fly, depending on student needs.

There are a few considerations that I keep in mind as a prepare to engage learners in breakout sessions. First, please note that  my audience of learners typically includes college undergraduates, graduate students, and educators. So, these strategies would need to be adjusted for younger students, especially elementary and middle school students, who may need fewer, more direct instructions as well as shorter time frames in the breakout rooms.

With all that in mind, here are a few activities that I use as it relates to setting up breakout rooms for different kinds of groups and for different durations. I think that they are flexible, and useful for learners at various age levels with appropriate scaffolding. To keep it simple, I separate them into quadrants, though there certainly can be some flexibility and overlap.

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions (August 2020)

Activities for Any Group, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 Minutes)

To get conversations started, you might try:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that have some rapport and community established, you can jump right in with:

Activities for New Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that you are trying to build community, you can have them watch a brief video or read a short text, and then engage in:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

For groups that have worked together and are moving into deeper conversation or inquiry, they can use protocols like:

Activities for New Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

And, to continue building community and to engage participants in activities that will help them move into more substantive conversations:

Of course, protocols by their very nature are all designed to be flexible, and could be used for a variety of purposes with both new and established groups, in durations short and long. Still, with the list above, my hope is that these resources are helpful for many educators, especially those working with high school and college students, in real time video chat sessions.

Closing Thoughts

Given the many reasons why it is challenging to simply get us all in the same virtual space at the same time, we need to make the precious minutes that we spend together in these sessions valuable. As Stone notes in her post for Inside Higher Ed,

[O]ur students have made it clear they want to learn, and they want connections with one another and with us as we continue to live through these uncertain and disruptive times. And I’ve found that in classes like mine, Zoom, far from fatiguing, can be both an energizer and a bridge.

Indeed, if we use our time in Zoom (or WebEx, or Google Meets, or Microsoft Teams, or BlueJeans, or BigBlueButton, or even in a face-to-face classroom), to engage students in meaningful dialogue and collaboration, we are in many ways just following the advice of all those who have been promoting active learning strategies for many years.

More than just providing a standard lecture in a convenient, online format, we have opportunities to be more dialogic, collaborative, and engaging this fall than, perhaps, we have ever had before.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Author: Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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