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Successful breakout rooms in Zoom

Breakout rooms are a feature in Zoom that allows groups of one or more participants to break out into any number of smaller Zoom meetings from within the initial Zoom meeting. Zoom breakout rooms are described in further detail in Zoom's documentation and are a great option for group work and small peer-to-peer discussions. 

Pedagogic techniques for successful breakout rooms

  • Assign a clear task for students to accomplish, such as brainstorming, coming to a position on a set of questions, etc.
  • Match the amount of time and number of students to the task. Depending on the activity, create groups of 3 to 8 people. The time for a breakout depends on the activity. Try different lengths and get feedback from students to find the optimal length of time.
  • Have students take notes collaboratively. A shared Google doc is a great way to have students collaboratively take notes that they can easily share.
  • Don't change group composition too often. Some students have reported not enjoying breakout rooms because they are not able to get to know their classmates when instructors randomly assign new groups each time. Consider the frequency of class sessions, course size, goals and objectives when setting or mixing up groups.
  • Consider if you will monitor group discussions. As host, you can move freely between breakout rooms, but can only be in one room at a time. Circulate through the rooms checking in with the students. Or you may prefer to turn off your microphone and video and simply observe.

Supporting students in breakout rooms

  • Share instructions for the breakout activity where students can see them. Copy instructions into the Zoom chat or in a shared document, as students, won't see the shared screen in the main room while in a breakout room.
  • Assign roles to students. Assigning roles will help students start the conversation and support equitable participation. Possible roles include first-to-speak, note-taker, reporter, timekeeper, equity monitor, or questioner/devil's advocate.
  • Randomly assign roles or select students with an equitable prompt. This may have the added benefit of acting as an icebreaker. Examples include assigning or selecting the person: whose first name is closest to the end of the alphabet, is wearing the shortest sleeves, whose birthday is coming up the soonest, whose hometown is closest to campus, etc.
  • Let students know how to ask for help after they join their breakout rooms. Tell students about the “Ask for Help” button at the bottom of their breakout room windows. This will notify the Zoom host that someone is requesting help and the host can join or send a TA to the breakout room. If you don't have enough people to send to different breakout rooms tell students to send a representative back to the main room for help. Just be sure to select “Allow participants to return to the main session at any time” when creating the rooms
  • Teach students how to share their screens and use the whiteboard feature. Assign a student within the breakout room to share their screen. They might share their view of a document or use the whiteboard feature in Zoom. Once sharing a screen they might use the annotation tool or save an image of the whiteboard.
  • Give students the option to opt-out of breakout rooms. Zoom fatigue can make online group work very unproductive and sometimes stressful for some students. Perhaps instruct students to send a private chat message to you if they need accommodation, or deselect “Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically” when creating the rooms and allow them to choose how they want to participate.

Additional tips

  • Get very familiar with the Zoom breakout room options. Practice with breakout rooms and get comfortable with all the settings before going live with your students. View Zoom documentation on breakout rooms.
  • Pre-assign breakout room members. A host can set up specific groups in advance through Stanford's Zoom web portal (this feature does not appear in the Canvas Zoom integration). Keep in mind that this feature is generally not needed for small classes or most common use cases.
  • Join Stanford's Zoom users Slack channel. Connect to a campus-wide network of Zoom users on Stanford's Slack grid. If you have a Zoom question, chances are someone here can help you. From within Slack, join channel #cop-zoom-users.

Excerpted with permission from Diane Lam's CTL resource, "Structuring Short-Term Group Work Online, with Zoom Breakout Rooms." See the full resource for Zoom breakout tech tutorials and more. 

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