Living, working, and learning in a virtual world for the better part of a year has been stressful and confusing. In March of last year, our communities shut down as we grappled with ways to stop the spread of Covid-19. Soon, however, we realized that life and business needed to continue in a safe manner and that is when virtual meetings took over our homes. 

Virtual learning has been a staple in many homes across the U.S. and as educators, we have had to learn and adapt to a new style of teaching. The virtual classroom had all the allure of something new and exciting as we embarked on our virtual journey, but “Zoom fatigue” soon set in for us and our students. Keeping students engaged inside the classroom is hard enough, and now we were hit with the unknown distractions that come with 30 students learning from 30 different places. 

Again, however, as educators we adapt and grow to meet the needs of our students, no matter where they join the classroom. It has taken skill and a lot of trial and error to understand how we can best utilize the virtual classroom for our students.

Breakout rooms have been an essential part in maintaining peer interaction and student engagement. We have seen a lot of success in this feature and conversely, we have seen many breakout sessions begin and end in silence. So how do we ensure students have a positive breakout room experience, engaging in curriculum and gaining valuable face time with their peers? Here are a few strategies that we have found improve the breakout room experience:

Focus on individual assignments first. 

Developing a classroom structure that allows students to complete their individual assignments before working on group assignments helps ensure they are fully engaged in the group work when the time comes. It also allows students to develop opinions, thoughts, and ideas regarding the topic of discussion. They can better brainstorm and identify solutions to problems if they have had individual time to formulate such ideas on their own first.

Encouraging students to discuss the work completed encourages collaboration and provides a more meaningful experience for those who tend to be quieter or take longer in developing their thoughts. 

Assign student roles.

To promote student engagement and limit the awkward silence that looms on every virtual meeting, the teacher should assign students’ certain roles. One student can be named the group lead, posing questions and keeping the group on topical conversation. Another can be designated as the note taker, gathering information to report back to the full class upon return. Another student can be the timekeeper, ensuring the group knows when they need to wrap up their conversation and return back to the full classroom. 

Student roles encourage ownership and helps keep group discussions to the current topic. Teachers can customize these roles, or students can volunteer to take it on. Roles can be changed each day or week, as the teacher and students see fit.

Use shared documents.

Shared documents like Google Docs work very well for virtual group work. First, it encourages all students to participate as you can see who has contributed what to each assignment. 

Secondly, it allows students to learn from their peers in a way that they may not have formulated before. Seeing another student’s writing provides a unique perspective to other students. 

Finally, a shared document allows the teacher insight to the group’s work without intruding on the actual breakout session. Often, when teachers pop into a breakout room, there is an awkward silence, and the collaborative progress falls off track. With shared documents, teachers can take note without taking over.

Learning how to utilize a breakout room that works well for your students and your curriculum will be unique to each teacher. It is important to keep track of what is working and what is not for your students. Following up and scheduling time to discuss breakout sessions with your students can give an insight into the structure you develop as virtual learning continues in our classrooms.