Revisiting LEaD Light Lunch 20/21. Making best use of breakout rooms by Stian Reimers

This is the second part of a set of three resources, shared in a LEaD Light Lunch session on teaching online with Zoom, by Stian Reimers, Reader in Psychology (School of arts and social sciences):

The Psychology BSc uses Zoom breakout rooms extensively to allow students to explore and discuss ideas in small groups, and spend time interacting and learning with each other and the lecturer. The vast majority of modules on the BSc used breakout rooms last term in one way or another. This document sets of some of the things we learned last term about using breakout rooms, along with some of the comments from students.

Why use breakout rooms?

The university is keen to give students opportunities to work together in small groups, to let students interact with each other to learn from each other, to explore the course content together, and to have some contact with their peers during remote learning and foster a sense of community. It also has the potential for allowing students to interact with the lecturer in a more informal, discursive setting. Breakout rooms offer a middle ground between individual small-group seminars, which would require vast amounts of lecturer time to run, with a cohort of over 250 students, and whole-group sessions in which students often feel passive and anonymous.

For planning breakout rooms be aware that attendance will not be anywhere near 100% for most of the term, so the number of groups or group sizes will be smaller than you might expect from the number of students enrolled.

What usually happens?

Typically, breakout rooms are used during an hour-long live session with between 20 and 100 students. The session starts with the usual introductions and perhaps a recap of the key points from the week’s materials. Then the breakout room activity is introduced to the group as a whole, often with a link to a question or a shared document to edit. Students are then allocated to breakout rooms with instructions of what they are expected to do. The lecturer then activates breakout rooms and students begin the activity. The lecturer and teaching buddy usually go around the breakout rooms, spending a few minutes in each, talking to the students, answering questions, drawing quieter students into the discussions. Everyone returns to the main room after the activity to debrief and report back. Often two different breakout room activities are used in a single session.

What’s good and bad about breakout rooms

Some students absolutely love them and find them immensely useful Other students actively avoid them. Even the general consensus varied substantially across modules, so anything that anyone says about breakout rooms (including me) may not apply to your teaching – seeing how things go and tweaking things based on what does and doesn’t work for your module is the way forward. You will almost definitely find that if you run a session that has a mix of whole group and breakout rooms, a number of students will leave when breakout rooms open, that’s fine.

Some student feedback included:

  • What has helped me the most is the synchronous group work and guided activities which has helped me be comfortable talking about topics and giving my view point – Y3;
  • The guided group work activities were a really fun and interactive way to consolidate information and was useful to put complex ideas into play with real life situations – Y3;
  • The collaboration with other students means if you are confused/unsure of what is expected or what knowledge is being practised, at least one person can help you before directing back to the module leader – Y3.
  • We could do more group activities in break out room as i enjoy hearing other peoples opinions on the topics we are learning – Y2.
  • Breakout rooms aren’t working, no one really talks in them even when you try to converse or stimulate conversation or they just leave the zoom call when they start – Y1;
  • I feel like online lessons are useless – Y2;
  • I’m not the biggest fan of breakout rooms because sometimes there is only 2 or 3 people talking – Y2
  • Staff dipping into the breakout rooms has been stimulating because they ask the right questions – Y2. I also like it that you and [teaching buddy] join each breakout rooms to discuss the topics with us and then summarise what everyone has said after the breakout rooms with [teaching buddy]. Good job! – Y2. I would prefer it if you joined each breakout rooms to discuss the topic with us – Y2

Making breakout room activities work

There’s no secret sauce, but colleagues’ experience from Term 1 suggests the following helps:

  • Clearly defined goals. Activities that involve open-ended discussion can be interesting, but conversations often peter out. Those in which students have a thing they need to achieve by the end of the session help keep students focused and talking
  • Accountability and recognition. Discussing the ideas or content to come out of activities keeps motivation higher than getting students to do something but not then evaluating what they’ve done. Lots of different ways of doing this – in smaller groups it could be that students are asked to report back via a spokesperson to the whole group on some aspect of what they’ve done, with different groups reporting on different aspects of the task. Where there is less time available, the lecturer and teaching buddy can report back on some of the themes emerging from the discussion “So what were some of the suggestions that people came up with in the rooms you visited?”. Alternatively, students can be asked to email their final products to the module leader, complete a Qualtrics survey with their answers, or save a Google / SharePoint file; with discussion of the responses the following week.
  • Asking students to allocate specific roles among themselves means that fewer students sit it out (for a discussion it might be that one person needs to chair, one person needs to give the arguments and evidential support for each of three stances on an issue, and so on; for other exercises, one person might be project leader, one person tasked with writing the text they need to produce and one person responsible for web searching for answers, and one for reporting back after the activity)
  • Putting the activity on Moodle before the session can be useful as the more motivated students have time to think about it and so contribute.
  • A relevant introduction making it clear how the task helps consolidate learning or develop skills or whatever it’s doing, so it doesn’t seem like something that’s being done for the sake of it. Any linking to the skills needed for the assessment tends to grab students’ attention.

Supervised vs. unsupervised breakout rooms: Numbers of students; length?

The best way of running breakout rooms is to have few enough groups to allow the lecturer and teaching buddy to spend time in each of the rooms interacting with students, listening to their ideas, and making helpful suggestions. It’s important that students have the opportunity to talk informally with their lecturers without too much of a barrier, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be done through the use of breakout rooms – it could be sticking around at the end of a session to talk with students or other activities. So there’s the option of having a mix of supervised (where the lecturers spend time in each breakout room) and unsupervised activities (where students are left to themselves to get on with a task).

Supervised: These tend to be larger breakout group sizes so there are fewer rooms in total, to allow lecturers to go around all the groups and spend useful time discussing ideas. We’re told small group teaching should be in group sizes of no more than 12-14, but groups of that size often seem too large and can be dominated by a small number of more confident students. A common example from last term: Group of 60 students in the main session were split into 6 sets of 10 students. This ended up being 8-9 students as a few left. Lecturer and teaching buddy took three groups each – which they agreed on as the rooms opened – and waited a couple of minutes before then spending 5 minutes in each of the three rooms they were allocated. Smaller groups work even better, but there’s either a tradeoff in the number of sessions that need to be run or in the time that lecturers can spend with each group. Activities can be longer with supervised rooms, to allow more interaction with the lecturer – last term 15-20 minute activities worked well, but so did 5-10 minute ones. It’s worth checking on students’ progress so they aren’t sitting waiting to be called back after completing the activity.

Unsupervised: In these, students are sent into a breakout room to complete an activity without interaction with the lecturer or teaching buddy. The lecturer usually stays in the main room and responds when students in a breakout room raise their hand but can also pop into some of the rooms to quickly check that everything is okay. Unsupervised rooms allow for smaller groups, and they can be as small as 3-4 students, which often means leads to more discussion. For postgrad courses it has worked having students put into breakout rooms in pairs. The risk for BSc modules is that with larger groups and with some less engaged students, students can end up in a room where the other person gives no evidence of being present. Zoom allows a maximum of 50 breakout rooms. A key issue for unsupervised breakout rooms is to ensure that the task is short, engaging, goal directed and easy to follow – with no lecturer present breakout rooms can end up silent and inactive, and the lecturer can be unaware of this. So a 2-5 minute activity is fairly low risk. If there are lots of groups then feeding back can be done quickly using a poll or getting students to post their final answer/conclusion/suggestion in the chat.

Cameras on or off?

While postgrad students tend to have their cameras on throughout live sessions, most undergraduate students have their cameras off. (I’ve seen a u-shaped function here with home schooling: Primary school children seem to have their cameras on by default but secondary school children switch them off, though that’s n = 3.) There are lots of legitimate reasons for having cameras off, but it’s okay to invite students to turn on their cameras for breakout room activities if they’re happy to do so. I tried a session where I offered to put students who wanted to have their cameras on in breakout rooms with other like-minded students, and a grand total of one student wanted to do this. But that might vary across modules. Experience is that students with cameras off can engage just as much in tasks as those with cameras on, and the few students who for whatever reason have their mics off as well can often contribute just as much in the chat as those who are speaking.

Editor note: Hear City’s student debate podcast about Cameras on or off

Allocating students to breakout rooms

There are three main ways of allocating students to breakout rooms: Lecturer specifies who goes in what room; random allocation; the students choose which room to join.

Lecturer-specified allocation
This has been trialled most in the first year – the idea being that students were allocated to breakout rooms by tutor group so they could get to know each other over the course of the term and build a sense of rapport and community. It involved a little extra work, as the breakout rooms need to be set up before the session, but if you have repeated sessions you only have to set them up the once. Details here. Although some students reported enjoying working regularly with the same people, there were two significant issues:

  • No control over weekly group sizes – groups will generally start fairly large but as attendance inevitably declines, sizes of some groups will reduce, meaning some groups last term only had one or two students in.
  •  Students can end up stuck with unresponsive peers and feel that they’re carrying the group.

Random allocation
This is what most lecturers particularly in the third year have done. It’s easiest to manage, ensures equal and appropriate group sizes and means students get to work with a range of their peers. For large groups, and where they may not know each other well, including some introduction or ice-breaking part at the start of the activity can help get everyone involved.

Self-allocation
Not used much last term, but it gives the option of letting students choose to work with their friends by all selecting the same breakout room to work in. Small risk of creating cliques but may be worth exploring.

Some student feedback has included:

  • I would prefer being in breakout rooms with our personal tutor group since i know them well and we talk more and more comfortable with them too – Y3
  • The synchronous live sessions are extremely hard to benefit from because my group never turns up, so I’m left alone and then have to get randomly put in a new group which makes it awkward. I prefer not turning up to the live sessions just to avoid that continuous cycle – Y1
  • In the breakout rooms people are not talking or haven’t done the work beforehand – Y1; As we’re split by tutor group, we’re forced to play with the cards we’re dealt. Luckily there are a couple of people in my group who are keen, have done the reading, and it can be quite enjoyable to talk to them. Unluckily that’s still only 2 people, and it’s not as intellectually stimulating as I would have wanted – Y2
  • I like that I got to work with different people each week – Y2
  • Allow students to chose their own breakout rooms [vs. being put with tutor group] as it can be frustrating getting put with a group of students who do not participant during the group tasks – Y2

Example Activity: The Copywriter

Aim
To get students to see how heuristics and biases can be used to influence behaviour and apply their understanding of the effects of emotion on decision making to real world scenarios.

Overview
Students had an interactive recap of the key material on emotional decision making. The lecturer then posted a link to a single PowerPoint slide on Dropbox and introduced the brief in which the groups took the role of advertising creatives having to come up with a single-page advert to get people to donate to a charity helping malnourished children in a fictional African country. The slide they were given contained a number of facts and images, some of which would be likely to be more effective in motivation donations than others, according to research on the affect heuristic and psychic numbing

Slide of facts and graphs
Example slide

Students were put in groups of 4-5 and asked to assign one person to write the final version, one person to lead the design and others to do research and suggest ideas. They spent 15 minutes discussing and editing the PowerPoint, choosing which graphics to include and writing the advert text based on the brief and the background. At the end they emailed their final versions to the lecturer, who started the following week’s session going through the submissions and pulling out some good examples.

Suggestions

This is more suitable for some topic areas than others, but the broader idea of giving students information and materials in a template document or presentation for them to edit and submit as a group could apply to a lot of areas – they could be asked to create an academic poster, an explainer for A-Level students on how a neuron fires, and so on. Students could be asked to attach the finished product to a Moodle forum post so everyone could see everyone else’s work.

Example Activity: The Debate

Aim

To get students to explore the varied opinions around certain issues in certain areas of health psychology, to understand and evaluate different viewpoints, and construct arguments for and against a proposition.

Overview
This activity was run across several weeks in the same breakout groups, and aligned with an asynchronous summative activity on Moodle in which students had to post arguments for or against a different health-related proposition each week. An issue for discussion was introduced to the whole group, and students were asked to discuss the issue and come up with an overall evaluation. One student was asked to act as scribe and share their screen, while also encouraging all students to contribute equally. The results of the deliberation were then reported back to the whole cohort, with students given the option of reporting verbally or posting in the chat.

example slide

 

Break out room activity slide

Slide with student instructions

Suggestions

Debate activities can be particularly helpful for giving students a broader framework – ethical, political – in which to embed the material they cover, as well as allowing students to discuss in more detail the extent to which theory and evidence covered in the asynchronous materials related to the particular issue for evaluation. Debates could cover broad overarching themes or involve evaluating specific materials.

Example Activity: The Mini Escape Room

Aim
To get students to use their research skills and initiative to find papers that were covered in the course. In the preceding week, a couple of students had asked the lecturer to send them references which they could have easily found themselves from the lecture materials, so this activity was to demonstrate how to find references.

Overview
Students were given a scenario in which they found themselves locked in one of the basement labs and needed to unlock the door by getting into a password-protected website. Students were all initially given these instructions (click on image to get a better view):

Escapre room instructions

Then put into breakout rooms of 4-5 and sent to try to work out the 8-digit password. The webpage they arrived on was very simple https://reimers.co.uk/validate/:

Banner with escape the lab written on it

The digits in the password were all answers to questions that required students to find resources relevant to the material covered.

  • There was that study about the split-brain patient and the chicken claw / snow covered house in the self-insight week. In that paper, the setup for the experiment, which is on the lecture slides too, is shown in the paper’s last Figure. What is the two-digit number of the Figure it appears in? [3rd + 4th digits]
  • In Week Two we looked at anchoring, and there was that study where people’s ratings of an American football player’s ability were affected by the number on his jersey. That paper had another experiment in, where participants estimated how much money they’d be likely to spend at a restaurant which either had a large two-digit number or a small two-digit number in its name. What was the large number? [5th + 6th digits]

If they got the digits correct, they were given a code ‘ZOOM’ to email to the lecturer – the first one to do so won.

Suggestions
Rather than the complexity of setting up password protected webpages, an easier option would be to put a password-protected Word document on Moodle that students need to get into by working out the code from the clues. It could also be set as an activity for students to complete in their own time. The task could be expanded to be more escape-room-like by having a linked sequence of challenges over a longer time.

Example Activity: The Evaluation

Aim
An important part of the module’s coursework is being able to relate behaviour change strategies and interventions to theory (and vice versa). This activity is designed to help students do this – as well as provide some ideas and inspiration for their own intervention.

Overview
Before the session, the lecturer put a diverse set of materials on Moodle – from a video of a healthy eating advert to a letter from a school encouraging parents to self-isolate when required – all of which attempted to influence health-related behaviour. Students were given a table of questions in a Word document to complete, and in their groups had to evaluate the different interventions based on the theory and evidence covered in the asynchronous materials.
After viewing and discussing the materials, students filled in their answers on the sheet. After returning from breakout rooms students had the option of reporting back verbally or posting their responses in the chat, which contributed to further discussion.

Instructions

question table

 

After viewing and discussing the materials, students filled in their answers on the sheet. After returning from breakout rooms students had the option of reporting back verbally or posting their responses in the chat, which contributed to further discussion.

Suggestions
Giving students a question table helps keep them focused on the specifics of the task. The activity could be expanded by asking students to find (either in advance or during the session) an example of an attempt to change behaviour themselves and share and evaluate those materials.

Example Activity: The Qualtrics Survey

Aim
To get students to think in detail about and test their understanding of crucial theories, gain an intuitive sense of what the different functional forms look like, and understand the implications for how they would lead to different behaviours.

Overview
The session started with a review of Prospect Theory and a live annotation of graphs in PowerPoint to help with their comprehension. Students were then told that they would work together in breakout rooms to solve a series of questions, with a link to a PowerPoint file with graphs and question on posted in the chat, and a link to a Qualtrics survey to submit their answers. They were told to arrange among themselves to have one person to lead the discussion, another to share their screen, and one other to submit their group’s answers along with the names of those in the group.

graphs imagesurvey question

The students had to interpret the graphs they were given and discuss what the implications of the graphs’ functional forms were. They had to answer as many questions as possible in a 15-minute session, and those with the most correct answers won. The lecturer bought the winning group a virtual coffee (a £3 Amazon voucher for each member) in recognition of their achievements and posted an annotated version of the PowerPoint with the correct answers and full description of the reason why they were correct on Moodle after the session.

Suggestions
Rather than setting up a Qualtrics survey it could work setting up a quiz on Moodle which students have to answer based on their discussion – that could be used to give them immediate feedback on the questions they’ve attempted.

Example Activity: The Short-Answer Question

Aim
To help students develop their writing skills and gain rapid peer and lecturer feedback on their descriptions of key concepts and research in cognitive psychology.
Overview
It was important for students to understand and communicate the key principles of low-level cognition in this module, so in the live sessions, students were put into breakout rooms and give three types of activity. The first involved broad scoping of an area (e.g., the three types of cell in the eye) or sketching out an argument, focusing on understanding; the second involved writing more formally about some of the material from the first part, focusing on writing; and the third part involved evaluating answers given by other groups, sometimes giving feedback, and if necessary, updating their own answers.
Students worked in the same groups from week to week, and were each given a OneNote page to write on online – they could also navigate to see the OneNote pages from other groups.

Tasks questionstask questions The lecturer moved around the breakout rooms giving feedback on conceptual understanding and writing to help students cement their grasp of the topic. If you can cement a grasp. It doesn’t sound advisable.
Suggestions
This could be implemented as a hybrid task in which students complete the first part of the activity on their own, and then come together to discuss and evaluate their answers before working on the second and third stages together.
If using OneNote is challenging it could be run more informally, using forums in Moodle where students edit their submission in Word or similar, with the scribe of the group sharing their screen, and then posting in a Moodle forum complete, before looking at other posts and giving feedback.

Example Activity: The Coursework Marker

Aim
To give students insight into the marking criteria and process for the module’s coursework and provide concrete examples for which students can start to think about writing their own essays.

Overview
The assessment brief was introduced to the group as a whole as part of a Q and A session. Before the session, the lecturer prepared three essays of varying quality based on submissions from previous years but edited to emphasise the strengths and weaknesses that tend to be seen in submissions (and to avoid showing actual student work from previous years as examples of what not to do). These were uploaded to Moodle immediately before the live session and remained on Moodle afterwards. Students were told that they would within their breakout rooms have to rank order the three submissions based on the marking criteria. They were given ten minutes to discuss the essays and how well they met the different rubric criteria and asked to nominate one person to report back to the group. After discussing, the breakout rooms closed, and everyone returned to the main session. The lecturer then asked each spokesperson to post the order they decided on from best to worst in the chat. The lecturer followed up with some of them, asking by name how their group had made their decision, as a basis for discussion. The lecturer then revealed the rank order and asked students to in their own time give a precise mark and score on the rubric dimensions for each essay by submitting a Qualtrics survey with their name and responses. The person who came closest was announced in the following week’s live session.

Questions in a surveySuggestions
This could be done as a group activity by asking students to complete the whole marking process in breakout rooms and submitting online via a Qualtrics survey or similar. It could equally be done with a single example essay rather than three, and students could be asked to provide written feedback as well as grades.

Things that didn’t work

Things that should have worked but didn’t

  • Putting together breakout rooms according to friendship groups and trying to keep the same groups for the live teaching over the course of the module. Declining attendance that was biased across different groups meant I ended up with some groups with very few people. I ended up reverting to using random assignment for breakout rooms and would do this from the start if I did it again.
  • Polleverywhere for feedback from breakout room activities. This just added another layer of complexity and I had trouble managing the screens. I ended up just using the chat function in zoom which was much easier

Fails
Things that we’ve got wrong repeatedly this term (which may or may not be relevant depending on how you’re using your rooms):

  • Not making the teaching buddy a co-host of the meeting, meaning they’re not able to move between breakout rooms and are stuck in the one to which they’re allocated.
  • Not enabling screen sharing for all participants, so students working together can’t all look at the answer-writer’s screen.
  • Forgetting to post the link to the task description before opening the breakout rooms – students aren’t able to see things posted to the main chat once they’re in breakout rooms, so you’ll need to go around the rooms and post the link in each.
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