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Creating Connection via Zoom: Better Breakout Rooms

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This week we hear from Megan Savage, English faculty, incoming co-SAC Chair, and former hybrid faculty mentor. In this post, Megan shares a few of her favorite strategies for creating connection and community during remote teaching. (gk)

One of the things most of us miss from in-person classrooms is connection. Even though it may not feel natural, it is possible to create connection via Zoom. Here are a few strategies for how to do that using the breakout rooms.

Strategy One: Create Student-Centered, Curiosity-Driven Groups

Many of us “feed” off of students’ energy in an in-person classroom, and it can feel deadening when students have their cameras off and we can’t assess their engagement. Here are a few ways to foster engagement with or without video cameras on:

  • Let students plan the topics that will be discussed that day in advance, using discussion forums or Google Docs to propose, modify, and shape topic discussions. Then, use those topics to organize breakout rooms.
  • Let students choose their group by topic of interest. To help facilitate breaking into groups swiftly, have students change their Zoom name to the topic they want to discuss (HT to Victoria Rau).
  • Let web research be part of the assignment, and let students find and integrate videos and other multimodal sources into their discussions. You may find a discussion needs to extend over two Zoom sessions – one session could be about finding resources, and the second session about sharing, analyzing, and discussing key discoveries.
  • Use the chat for comments and questions during group presentations – like a “live-blog.” Appoint a student to monitor the chat so you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Strategy Two: Everyone Gets a Job

Image of dog at a computer

Image by Free-Photos from Pixaby

Before the class splits into breakout rooms, tell them that their first task is to assign everyone a job. This strategy works particularly well in groups of 3-6. And students don’t need to have their video cameras on to have a job, so it’s a good way to create non-video engagement. Here are some sample jobs:

  • Makes sure everyone is heard — invites group members who talk a lot to “step back,” and those who talk less to “come forward”
  • Connects ideas between group members and raises questions
  • Keeps group on task
  • Keeps the group on time
  • Jots down key points throughout the discussion
  • Edits the Google Doc whiteboard with key points to share with the larger class
Presenter/s (or Sharers)
  • Reports back to the class
  • Two students could hold a Q&A or discussion in front of the rest of the class instead of a single student or group “presentation,” if you’d like to make this less stressful

Strategy Three: The Fishbowl, Where You Model a Discussion

picture of fish bowl

              Image C. Olga Yastremska via 123rf.com

No one knows how to have a Zoom discussion! We are all new at this, and we can’t expect ourselves to be instantly excellent.  Practice together.

Here’s a strategy I use frequently in my face-to-face Creative Writing workshops, and it’s translated effectively to Zoom. Before any of my students break into small groups for their workshop discussions, I have more advanced students (or just volunteers) conduct a small-group discussion with me in front of the whole class. In my classes, I bring in a rough draft writing I wrote so I can model being the author. But you could use this method with any sample discussion topic. Here are the steps:

  1. Go over discussion protocols. My creative writing workshop protocols are too lengthy to share here, but here’s an excerpt to give you an idea:
    • Begin with descriptive feedback. Give a “reading” of the piece.
      What did you understand to happen, literally? What themes or concerns did you notice? What emotions or ideas did the piece raise? How would you describe its style or aesthetic? What stayed with you?
    • Transition into positive feedback (“love notes”).
      What can the author feel confident about? What aspects of craft were particularly effective and why? Where did you feel a “thrum” of rightness? Can you try to understand why? What lines or images did you love and why?
    • Slide into questions, constructively critical feedback, “what ifs?”
      What aspects of craft most need revision attention? Why? Ask questions about the aspects of craft we’ve discussed (ex. Where could place be better used to evoke character and emotion?). Answer any of the “questions to ask yourself while writing fiction,” etc. Discuss aspects that feel underdeveloped and places you want more scene (rather than summary) and detail. Remember that a useful way into critical feedback is to raise “what ifs” — “What if the piece started on page 2?” “What if the story took place in a different setting?” “What if the piece were told from a different perspective?” How would the story change?
  2. Get volunteers to be a discussion group, preferably talkative students or ones with experience. Invite one of those students to be the “facilitator” or model facilitation yourself.
  3. Hold a mini-discussion with the rest of the class watching. I usually take at least fifteen minutes for this, but you could easily go shorter or longer, depending on your topic.
  4. Debrief about how it went! Focus on the protocols and process, not just what was said in the discussion. The idea is to get students to learn how to have effective dialogue/discourse, not just how to say smart things. I usually hear from folks with different roles in concentric circles:
    • What did the folks watching the discussion from the outside notice?
    • What did that feel like from the inside, to the folks participating in the discussion?
    • What did it feel like to you, the instructor (or facilitator)?
  5. After students have their own breakout room discussions without you, make time to check in about how that went.  Ask them what they want to keep and what they want to toss: What worked that you can build on? What didn’t that you can improve on?

I hope these strategies are useful for you! Even if it takes you a while to figure out if and how to use them…

Megan Savage, MFA, MA (she/her/hers)
Instructor, Composition & Literature
Portland Community College, Sylvania
PCC Humanities and Arts (HARTS) Initiative

About Greg Kaminski

Online Learning: online course design consultant, coordinator of Online Faculty Mentors, Quality Matters facilitator, interactive teaching practices enthusiast. more »

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Sorry, but the comments have been closed. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x (Comment #40579) by Elise McLain 2 years ago (Comment #40579)

Megan, these were excellent suggestions. I especially like the modeling idea.

Another great idea that I use (but cannot claim as my own) is one developed by Kenya Zappa, ESOL. The instructor creates a “task sheet” on google docs that students must complete during breakout sessions. One student shares their screen and shares the doc with other group members so they all can work on it together. On the sheet, I can include links to videos, grammar games, vocabulary flashcards, and/or they can share their essays and write suggestions. They turn in the doc at the end of class and this contributes to their participation points. Jennifer Snyder, ESOL, does something similar but uses Google slides.

x (Comment #40580) by Debra Lippoldt 2 years ago (Comment #40580)

Many thanks for sharing, Megan! These are great ideas.

x (Comment #40582) by Christine Weber 2 years ago (Comment #40582)

These are fantastic ideas, Megan! I could see these strategies working in the context of Studio Art critiques, along with a variety of other disciplines.

x (Comment #40587) by Bryan 2 years ago (Comment #40587)

Thank you, Megan! I’ve been shying away from breakout rooms this term, because the first couple times I used them they were total disasters. You’ve given me inspiration!

x (Comment #40588) by Megan Savage 2 years ago (Comment #40588)

Thanks so much for your comments, and Elise, thanks for passing along another excellent strategy! Looks like you may have a blog post to write yourself… ;)

x (Comment #40610) by Susan Scott 2 years ago (Comment #40610)

I like a lot of your points but I would like to share a job that I give my students that others might find helpful. I put one person in charge of online sharing of presentations, documents or links if a student who wants to share but can’t get their computer to work or cell phone.
I also select a student to be a person to get others engaged by calling their name in the small groups.
Change these jobs up all the time so everyone gets a chance to be ain a different role.
* on a sidenote today I actually had two different students who couldn’t be the online helper due to internet issues and two other students immediately stepped up. I work hard to build community in the class snd today was a great example of it at work.

x (Comment #40736) by Megan Savage 2 years ago (Comment #40736)

Thanks for these great suggestions, Susan! I appreciate your important point that it can be helpful to have student in the group handling technology when there are accessibility and internet issues. It sounds like that’s worked so well for you.

Also, I agree that it’s important to rotate roles every time. I do that too!

x (Comment #40801) by Linda Stewart 2 years ago (Comment #40801)

Hi Megan,

After some so-so breakout room experiences, I tried a couple of your ideas. Students renamed themselves to indicate their interest in discussing specific aspects of our topic, and I placed them into groups according to that. I also assigned leader/note-taker roles to each group. Success! Thanks for this helpful post!!