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One Tweak to Make Breakout Rooms Easier To Manage

As an instructor, it's hard to go from group to group and add meaningfully—without taking up so much time. There is a better way.

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by Norman Eng in Uncategorized
September 6, 2020 17 comments

It’s frustrating to use breakout rooms for group discussions, whether on Zoom or on Blackboard (my learning management system platform). I struggled with it last semester.

Why? Because I felt like I was just “making the rounds.” Checking in on students without really helping them deepen their learning.

The Struggle 

The problem was it took forever to move from one group to another. First, I had to click “Leave Group.” Then I had to wait (anywhere from five to fifteen seconds) to be brought back to the main room. Next, I had to open the breakout group panel and select the new room to move to. And finally I had to wait again to be transported to that new room. All told, the process took up to one minute, depending on my Internet connection.

By the time I joined the new group, I had missed most of the conversation. So I ended up trying to catch up, saying only a few words before moving on, and generally wasting everyone’s time.

I don’t question the utility of breakout rooms. Just the logistics of it.

With traditional classroom discussion groups, logistics is rarely an issue. I can fluidly move from one group to another, which allows me to pick up ongoing conversations more easily. I can even keep an eye out for other groups at the same time, pivoting where necessary.

There’s this sense of “with-it-ness” in the latter that’s hard to duplicate with remote groups.

A Potential “Break” Through

Remotely-speaking, how could I be more “with-it”?

That’s when I made one tweak: Having students document their group discussion in real time on Google Docs.

(Technically, it’s Google Sheets, which is like Excel.)

When every group jots down their questions, comments, and insights on one shared—and live—document, I get an immediate sense of what’s going on: the common issues they face, which group to visit first, and even when to wind down the breakout session. I’m so much more efficient.

Click image to see detail

How To Use Google Docs for Breakout Rooms

Let’s say I ask a focusing question (as I did on Day 1 of the new term), such as: “What are some questions you have about the syllabus? Discuss with your group and post your thoughts.”

A designated note-taker from each group keeps “running records”—jotting down all the questions and comments under the appropriate column. As the comments populate in real time, I quickly scan for issues I can bring up to a particular group and questions I can address to the whole class afterwards. For instance, in the example screen shot above, I know students are struggling with the clinical fieldwork component of the course (what to do, how to do it, etc.)

Google Docs even allows me to see which groups simply need a bit of motivation.

Sometimes I’ll write a note to one group without joining in. Apparently, my disembodied presence keeps them on their toes just as equally as my actual in-room presence.

In fact, I’ve started to wonder, with a tool as powerful as Google Docs: Do I even need to visit each breakout room? Couldn’t I just stay in the main room, watch as they type away, and just add my two cents from afar? This could work with large class sizes, especially if you have teaching or graduate assistants. It’s worth testing.

Of course, nothing beats actual presence. Or at least virtual face-to-face presence.

Another advantage (or perhaps disadvantage, in some cases) of having students document their discussions in real time is the fact that students want to see what other peer groups have written. I love the idea of helping students learn from other groups.

The key to the success of using Google Docs is to train students to document their conversations from the very beginning. If they don’t, you’ll only get summaries written at the end, which defeats the purpose. So I tell them: Don’t wait to jot things down. I should see notes within the first minute of discussions.

Planning for Breakout Rooms

When it comes to planning breakout sessions, I have my questions lined up beforehand (typically at least two). When the time comes, I copy/paste a question onto Google Docs. Students are sorted into their groups (they need to note which group they’re in!) and immediately figure out who is the note-taker. Usually I’ll say something like, “The note-taker will be the one whose first name comes last in alphabetical order.”

In the future, I’ll designate each group member with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (if there are 5 members), so I can say, “Number 3 is the note-taker for this breakout session.” With large classes, you might need more than one.

Each Google Sheet is used for one class session. The next time we meet synchronously, I open up a new tab at the bottom of the page:

The beauty is that students have a running record of everything that was discussed—for Week 1, Week 2, Week 3—i.e., the whole semester. A wonderful artifact to reference!

Step-By-Step Directions:

Step 1. Create a Google Sheet (or Slide or Doc). Create one column for each group, depending on how many students you have.

Step 2. Share the link with students (by copying/pasting the Google Sheets link in your LMS chat window). Hint: Make sure you give them permission to edit, not just view, the document).

Step 3. Designate one person in each group to be the note-taker or record-keeper. His or her job is to document key points from the very beginning. Automate the process by saying something like, “The note-taker will be the person whose first name comes last in alphabetical order.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter what tool you use to accomplish this. Google Docs just happens to be convenient. Any platform that allows collaborative, real time notes, whether it’s Google Slides, Padlet, or NearPod—will work.

Now at least I’m more engaged during breakout group sessions. Isn’t that the point?

Thoughts about this or other ways to improve the logistics of using breakout rooms are welcome!

17 Comments
  1. Shari Bertolone says:

    Thank you so much for this strategy. I have had a similar experience with breakout groups via Zoom and have wondered if I should simply let them discuss and then meet back as a class to have each group contribute to the whole class discussion. I will try using google sheets during my next class discussion.
    I appreciate the suggestion!

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Shari, what you described is exactly what I did last semester and it was engaging, but it took so long, so it felt inefficient. Been thinking about ways to streamline the process. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Anne says:

    Norman, I think this is a great idea. Just having a recorder or notetaker jot down on a Google Doc what is being discussed is so valuable.

  3. Tom says:

    What a cool way to get on top of breakout rooms. I get what you mean about how frustrating it is to go from one room to another. Takes up so much time! I’ll try it and report back! Thanks for this!

  4. Dana says:

    Norman-
    I have been struggling with this exact issue. My students like small group work, but it has been a challenge. In our HiFlex class, some students are in-class and others are remote participating via zoom. I am excited to try the Google Doc method described. I hope it will improve the communication and help students build a group dynamic.

  5. Caroline says:

    I love this idea. I’m in math, though —> and most students don’t have touch screen devices to use something like a shared whiteboard. I’d love to figure out some way to do this with my remote students. Right now we discuss and set up and I send groups off to work independently for a set amount of time, and we debrief afterwards. While the remote groups are learning I’m answering questions for the students physically present in my classroom who can’t get into groups bigger than “discuss with your neighbor”. It’s an *okay* solution but I’d like to improve on it.
    I love this idea for discussions where notes can be typed!

  6. Laura says:

    I have also done this. One additional idea. I have used google docs and have a table with each of their names; 24 students in my class. I copy and paste it in to my class google doc; which has ouline of class, some key ideas we will address. And then when I want to check in . answer a quick question; one phase that captures, #hashtag, etc. students all write in their own boxes; and then we continue— each has been included. What really makes this work— I share what I am seeing — a few of you were excited about xx; some questions about y or we seem to have some agreement about z. Anyone who mentioned xx want to share a little more about that. Thanks for sharing re using sheets— that maybe easier for groups than docs.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Nice idea, Laura! This gets at a granular level and holds every single students accountable. Love the idea of “one phrase” or hashtag or something that just gets them going.

  7. annette says:

    I agree about the time it takes. But when you are teaching in another language, it is nearly imposisble to have them write down their discussions..

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Interesting – what are some ways we can make this work for your class?

  8. Cathy D says:

    Excellent suggestion! So many of the how-to tips I’m seeing online are so complicated and require yet another app that I am not familiar with. My freshmen are still getting used to our campus LMS, but they will likely be familiar with Google features. This strategy is beautiful in its simplicity. Thank you!

  9. Maceo Johnson says:

    This is great stuff. NBAT(Nothing Beats Aah(inhale ) Teacher

  10. Jeannie says:

    Great idea, thank you!! I’m planning on using it to also keep track of number of times students engage, attendance, etc. I’ve added to each column a box for the group leader to write the students names in their group. Is there a way to freeze of lock the doc after each class so a student can’t go back in and add their name?

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Jeannie! Google Docs allow you to lock certain cell ranges or the whole sheet. I do this manually after each class. Go to Data > Protected Sheets and Ranges > Sheet. From there, you can set permissions (i.e., only allowing you to make changes). This way, the new tab (next week’s sheet, say Week 2) is not affected. You can also protect a range of cells rather than the whole sheet, depending on what specific parts you want to restrict access to. They can still see everything, but not change it! Hope that helps–and thanks for bringing it up!

  11. Prof. Vazquez says:

    Dear colleagues,
    I am currently trying out just using the chatroom leave the note taker upload the discussion notes to the D2L platforms discussion board and we then regroup to the larger group and go back to their notes to develop questions for us to further discuss 😀 so far its working but we’re still taking a lot of time I will definitely try the Google doc sharing for this coming Thursday groups breakouts rooms thanks al lot for the strategies you always safe the day! Keep tnen coming.

  12. Sonora says:

    Are you using Google docs while meeting on Zoom? Or are you meeting on Google meet? Does it matter? I’m teaching counseling theories this semester online. This next week I’m going to send students into breakout groups and then have them discuss one theory from Freud, create a skit, then present it to the class. Just wondering how to use this in that. Also I like adding writing into the only classroom. I have been trying to figure out ways to do that. Maybe I can begin to say, “Take 5 minutes right now to write down your thoughts about last weeks reading.” When I ask questions, I get radio silence. Hard to know if it’s comfort level speaking online or that they didn’t do the reading.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Hi Sonora! I use Zoom but I’ve also done this with Google Hangouts/Meet. It doesn’t matter as long as students can open a separate window for Google Docs. As for radio silence it could be any of the factors you mentioned. Maybe start with a “grease-the-wheels” question, something that is easier to answer, like giving an opinion or prediction about something. The more related to their life the better!

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

A Quick-Start Guide

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