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 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.
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 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!