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Breakout Rooms: The Best or Worst Part of the Day?

Everyone is familiar with group work in classes, but when school switched to Zoom in the spring most people assumed it would be a thing of the past. Enter breakout rooms: students can either be split into groups by the zoom host or, with the latest version of Zoom, join their own rooms. Throughout online school, students have maintained divided feelings about breakout rooms – some feel that they are unproductive and uncomfortable, while some feel that they are a nice private setting to interact with classmates and ask questions. Teachers also have differing feelings about their use in classes (see graphs below): 

To understand the wide range of results, first, here’s the positive outlook. In a recent survey, Frances T., who teaches Computer Science Principles, responded, “[breakout rooms] are one way to change up the rhythm in the classroom. I also encourage students to turn their videos on and I think in a breakout room, this may be more likely to happen because of the smaller group.” Tenth grader Edhil H. also appreciates breakout rooms. She says, “I think they are improving my learning because they give me time to ask questions to others on a smaller scale, time to understand class material, and ask for help if the whole group does not understand a concept.” Twelfth grader Zora L. likes “having time to talk to other students away from the teacher” and feels like “students open up more” in breakout rooms. Some teachers mentioned that they value breakout rooms as a time when they can get to know students as individuals during online school. 

However, not everyone is as happy with the concept. There seems to be a frequent problem with participation – many students feel that though sometimes breakout rooms result in engaging conversations, many times they are silent, awkward, and a waste of time, or else filled with tedious small talk. Tenth grader Rose M. distinguishes between subjects: “for language classes breakout rooms are helpful to practice talking with each other, but in science or humanities classes I think having less would be fine.” David M., who teaches Spanish and French, uses breakout rooms every class because he wants students to practice “speaking the language in a less intimidating setting,” he says. “But sometimes I show up and the students have their mics/webcams off when the instructions were to discuss a certain topic.” In response to the “typical lack of participation,” Ethan S., who teaches Music, does not use breakout rooms: “I try to look at these through the lens of a participant,” he says, “and I always strongly dislike the “turn to a partner” tactic. 

Tenth grader Seth H. provides a possible explanation for the lack of enthusiasm: “I don’t think [breakout rooms] promote discussion because when the teacher isn’t present kids don’t have to talk and the teacher won’t know otherwise.” When asked if they improve his learning, he said, “I don’t think so because I end up doing most of the stuff by myself or I let my group do it. So it ends up being the same as fully individual work in a big group or I just don’t learn because I slack off” (the graph below shows how 39 other students answered this question). 

Some students experience stress being randomly assigned to breakout rooms with people they don’t feel as comfortable talking with, especially on an already awkward platform after months of solitude. In the survey, teachers mentioned that there may be something to be said for pushing through the awkwardness, and while some students agree with this viewpoint, others think it is unfair and inefficient to be subjected to uncomfortable silence so frequently.

There’s also the time factor, which can be hard for teachers to judge: if the amount of time students have to discuss or work on a project aligns well with what needs to be done, the awkwardness can be diminished – or vice versa. The timing problem is sometimes exacerbated if teachers pop in and out of rooms, but that direct help can also be valuable. 

Thankfully, students and teachers have been experimenting throughout the first trimester and brainstorming ways to harness the helpful parts of breakout rooms without subjecting students to the unhelpful parts, like unproductive silence. Teachers were surveyed about how they think students feel about breakout rooms and the results lined up fairly well with student responses (see graphs below). So teachers seem to know how students are feeling and are trying to adapt.

Many teachers and students agree that breakout rooms are the most helpful when the instructions are clear, assignments are varied each class, and when each student is assigned a task to report back on at the end of breakout room time, so everyone feels engaged. However, this could take away from the freedom of breakout rooms and add to the awkwardness, as, like Seth mentioned, someone could end up doing everything or prompting a silent room to get to work. Husayn C., who teaches PE and Spoken Word gives students the choice of whether they want to be in breakout rooms or not: “because students have agency in the rare times that they are in breakout rooms, I can feel ok about thinking they’re getting value from those experiences.” This tactic could be used in other cases. Tenth grader Mathilde V. adds, “I really wish we would make turning on cameras mandatory. It makes the “vibe” in the room much better as it feels like you’re talking to others.” 

Many students responded that they wished they could be placed in breakout rooms with friends more often. This is possible with the latest version of Zoom, where students can choose their own breakout rooms and mingle between them. Many might argue that this takes away from opportunities to try new things and meet new people, but we’re in a pandemic and if there’s a way to make social connection more comfortable and accessible that could make a lot of people happy. Countless surveys have asked students how the school can increase social connection, and it could be helpful to let students spend time with people they know will engage at the same level they are prepared to. Maybe with these changes breakout rooms can meet the needs of a greater majority of the Northwest community. 

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