Improving Breakout Room Discussions in Online Teaching by Using Collaborative Documents

Breakout groups in online classes

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

During a recent online class, a student posted in the chat, “We should use breakout groups in all courses.”  On the other hand, a faculty director bemoaned receiving student complaints when, for example, two students are left in breakout rooms for 20 minutes with a task that can be completed in 5-10 minutes.  These two comments speak to the promise and peril of breakout room discussions.  They have the potential to be meaningful experiences during the synchronous portion of the course.  They can also be perceived as a waste of time and fall flat. 

There are a two main questions faculty members must answer before utilizing breakout groups:

How can I make the instructions for the breakout discussion clear?

Students in an in-person class can seek clarification more easily or ask the common question, “Can you tell us again what we are supposed to be doing?”  During online breakout groups, opportunities for this type of immediate clarification have more limitations.  Therefore, clear and specific instructions, which are easily accessible to students during the breakout discussions, are crucial to their success.

How long should I leave students in the breakout group? 

We have likely all had mixed experiences with small group activities.  If students are given five minutes to discuss four issues, when we call, “Time’s up,” some groups are frustrated because they barely started item two.  At other times, groups may finish discussing the four issues quickly and have to figure out what to do with all the remaining time.  It is challenging for instructors to know exactly how much time to give for breakout discussions, even for an activity used previously.  Each group works at a different pace and spends more or less time on certain items.   Having a system to track where each group is during the discussion helps instructors better determine an end time and makes these breakout discussions more efficient and effective.

Tips on managing breakout discussions

I will share a couple of tips I have learned over the past few years of online instruction that address both of the items listed above.  These tips involve the use of collaborative documents as companion documents with the breakout discussions.

Creating a Collaborative Document

While there are various sources for collaborative documents, I’ll describe using Google documents, given their common usage.  After signing on to a Google account, open a tab in your browser to Google.  In the upper right corner is an image of nine squares.  Click on that icon to open your Google apps. Select Docs and then click the Blank (new document) image on the next page.  You can click in the Untitled Document field in the upper left corner change to change the document title to something like Breakout 1.  Next, click the Share button in the upper right corner of the document.  You can enter the official email addresses of all of the students in your class in this location. 

Before completing, I recommend “unchecking” the box that says “Notify People.”  If that box remains checked, all students will receive an email about a new collaborative document, which could confuse them before your in-class instructions.  You have now created the collaborative document for Breakout Group 1.  Open the LMS for your course, create a folder titled Breakout Groups, and then copy the URL associated with this first document into that folder with the title Breakout Group 1.  Follow the same steps listed above to populate this folder with the number of breakout groups you will use.  As one guide, if a class has 24 students and you anticipate having groups of four members, create six breakout group documents. 

Providing Breakout Group Instructions in the Collaborative Document

For simplicity, I will assume that all six breakout groups will discuss the same items.  Let’s say I am covering the topic of compliance and dissent in an upcoming social psychology class.  In the breakout groups, as a warm-up exercise, I want students to identify five factors associated with conformity and five factors associated with dissent.  To prepare for that discussion, I copy and paste the same instructions in all six collaborative documents.  Here is an example of this simple set of instructions:

  1. List five factors that increase the likelihood that people will conform to what others are doing or saying?
  2. List five factors that increase the likelihood of dissent from what others are doing or saying?

Using Collaborative Documents During Breakout Groups

For the synchronous portion of the class, ask students to sign-in to both the LMS and the virtual collaboration software (e.g., Zoom, Google Hangouts). When you are ready to send students to breakout rooms, first paraphrase the discussion instructions and inform them that these instructions are provided in detail in the collaborative document.  Request a volunteer note-taker and facilitator for each group.  However, emphasize that all group members are expected to be active participants and can be asked to summarize the group’s points during the debriefing sessions following the breakout groups.  Students are then sent to their breakout room and they will each open the collaborative document in the LMS folder that corresponds to their group number (e.g., Breakout 1, Breakout 2).  Each breakout group discusses its assigned topics and takes brief notes that capture their discussion.

Monitoring Breakout Discussions

Instructors can have a separate tab open to each breakout group’s collaborative document.  This procedure allows instructors to monitor where each group is in the process, track the types of comments generated, and determine the best time to give a two minute warning before bringing the class back together.  As part of the session debriefing, instructors can share their screen and review each group’s notes while highlighting or emphasizing their strongest points.

Now that the collaborative documents are created, discussion instructions for the next class meeting can be placed at the beginning of each document.  This process provides you with an ongoing comprehensive list of breakout sessions to aid future courses.

The procedures in this article are designed to make your breakout group discussions more meaningful and efficient. 

Dennis Lowe, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and holds the M. Norvel and Helen Young Endowed Chair in Family Life.  He has been teaching for four decades and his online teaching skills have improved unexpectedly and significantly over the past three years!