Teamwork is dreamwork: pushing the boundaries in breakout rooms

When I teach online lessons to groups of students from around the world on the Pearson & BBC Live Classes project, the breakout rooms are always my favourite bit. It’s wonderful to see the students working to make themselves understood, getting to know one another and learning about one another’s countries and cultures.

But if you’re teaching regular online lessons to the same group of students week in, week out you can really push the boundaries with breakout rooms, moving from simple speaking tasks to increasingly ambitious collaborative tasks. In this blog post, we’re going to consider setting up and managing tasks like these in breakout rooms. I’ve referenced the platform Zoom, but it’s not the only one with breakout rooms (BigBlueButton, Webex).

Let’s begin!

Setting up the task – let’s check they understand

Checking understanding is important. And a golden rule we’re given on teacher training is that we don’t ask ‘Do you understand’ – it’s followed by nods or smiles and then once the students get down to the task you hear a whispered ‘What have we got to do again?!’

So we rather check understanding by asking questions about the task ( ‘What page and exercise is it?’ ‘How many people do you need to ask?’ ‘Where do you write your answers?’ ‘What do you have to show me at the end?’ ). We can also have a student re-explain the task, or have the students write what they have to do in the chatbox in an online class.

You can take this even further. So, you read out your instructions. Let’s say they’re these:

In your pairs, ask each other the 5 questions on page 45. Listen to each other’s answers carefully, make notes on each other’s answers and ask at least one follow-up question. Be ready to share what you learned about your partner with the whole class.

Then you give students a gap-fill. Who really has been listening to what they have to do?

In your pairs, ask each other the 1) __ questions on page 2)___. Listen to each other’s answers 3) ________, make 4) ______ on each other’s answers and ask at least one 5)________ question. Be ready to 6)_______what you learned about your partner with the whole class.

The other big way of making a task clear is by modelling of course. So if you were going to send students off to breakout rooms to do a speaking task, you may want to model it with a student in front of the whole class first. If you’re going to be getting your students to assess one another’s speaking in their breakout rooms, then assessing this model is a good place to start. To go back to the instructions above, you might even want to concept check and model both ‘follow up question’ and ‘take notes’.

To sum up, if we’re going to be sending our students off on their merry way to a breakout room, we need to know that they know what they’re supposed to do. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t monitor them when they’re in there! But we’ll get to that…

Onto our task – getting ambitious

Here is our task: a group presentation. Being able to deliver a presentation is useful 21st century skill and being able to deliver a presentation online is certainly a skill for the rather ‘atypical’ year, shall we say, that is 2020! And almost certainly beyond, too.

Students can deliver PowerPoint presentations in online lessons using screenshare. But before delivering the presentation they’ll need to prepare it. This can be done outside of class time, but also in class as well, in breakout rooms.

For a project-type task like this they’ll need clear instructions and it’s useful to break up the task into chunks.

Here is a breakdown of the task into component parts:

Short presentation = 2 minutes, approx 5 slides

5 minutes: look for interesting building (INDIVIDUAL)

3 minutes: decide on the interesting building (TOGETHER)

10 minutes: find when, where, why, use, unusual features (TWO details each – agree)

5 minutes: agree on 3 more pieces of information to include (TOGETHER)

15 minutes: a) pictures in PowerPoint, b) bullet points for slide, c) make script using key phrases (INDIVIDUAL / TOGETHER)

10 minutes: split presentation into 3, rehearse.

Start of next lesson: deliver!

So, we’ve broken down the task into component parts, looked at what the role of each student in the group is for each part and set a time limit for each part of the preparation too. This is useful to avoid groups spending half the lesson thinking of what they want to do their presentation on.

Screen sharing in breakout rooms helps facilitate the students working together. They can project the google slides where the presentation is being created for example, or a website where they’ve found a good idea – they’ll need to have had this demonstrated before. So a teacher can have a pupil screenshare when the whole class is still together.

So, students are in breakout rooms getting to work on a task, looking on the internet for their unusual building and putting pictures and text on the google slides / PowerPoint. What can the teacher do?

Monitoring and directing students in breakout rooms

There are a number of different things a teacher can be doing while students are working in breakout rooms.

  • Popping in and out. The teacher goes in and out of the different rooms, asking students how they are getting on with the task and having the students explain where they are.
  • Working with one group in particular. Just as in a classroom, you may set up mixed ability groups, or you make have decided that there are some students who need extra help for whatever reason (level of English, level of other skills) – so you might stay with them for more of the time.
  • Broadcasting messages

This function is very useful. From outside the breakout rooms you can send messages into them. This is great for firing in reminders, or, if you’ve broken up a big task into smaller tasks and given your students a time to do them in, as we have for our presentation task, you can tell them where they should be: ‘One minute left to decide on your unusual building’ ‘Ok, onto the next part: find the different features of the building: you’ve got ten minutes’ ‘Two minutes left, then onto the next part’ – So you’re applying a bit of pressure and trying to get them to work efficiently. With the caveat that you’ll need to be realistic for how long you give them (and you learn a lot of this with working with your students of course!), I’ve found this sort of group monitoring very effective with teens.

  • Monitoring from the control tower

You can monitor your students’ work in breakout rooms without actually going into them if you have all of the groups working on a shared document.

Here’s an example:

So here, each group is preparing their presentation in a google doc or similar. If you felt it necessary, you could have a different document for each group, but I’ve done these types of activities with a single doc and I think they can work well – groups can spur each other on (‘Look where they are – we’d better hurry up!’) and if they end up using a phrase another group has used: so be it, they’re learning.

The teacher can watch this document being updated in real time and add comments and feedback where necessary or, if they see a group is struggling, go to their room and help.

  • Students asking for help

It’s worth pointing out to students that Zoom breakout rooms has a function to ask for help:

Evaluating that presentation 

We’ve been focusing on how to manage the preparation work for a presentation (it could have been any larger group task though) in a breakout room, but I think giving assessment a quick mention here is worthwhile. This is a sample rubric for our students’ presentations – although I’ve left it for towards the end of the blog post, they’d need to get it at the start. This is really the same thing as providing ‘success criteria’ for the task and we can make it even more accessible for our students if we give them a little presentation ourselves (modelling, once again) and get them to grade it using the rubric

That’s quite a lot to learn right?

Yes it is! Imagine your students had never worked in a breakout room, didn’t know how to screenshare, weren’t used to working in a group a lot, had never given a presentation, had never assessed one another etc – this sort of task might be a bridge too far. Think of all the skills involved:

PowerPoint skills (pasting pictures, adding text boxes, adding notes)

Researching skills (google search, saving photos, reading scanning skills)

Collaboration skills (listening to others’ suggestions, being respectful)

Leadership skills (making decisions)

Presentational skills (looking at the camera, varying intonation, speaking clearly)

Zoom skills (Sharing screen, requesting help)

Assessment skills (assessing different criteria based on a rubric)

I’m sure you can add to this list. So the point here is that a task like the one I’ve outlined would need to be built up to and that there are individual skills that need to be sharpened before putting them altogether. And let’s be honest, this sort of thing requires a bit of practice for the teacher too!

But at the same time, working in this way really is equipping students with lots of skills for now and in the future and is also certainly a welcome respite for both teacher and students from a ‘lockstep’ online lesson. Why not give it a go?

Project taken from the course Real World 

You might also be interested in…

10 ways to use short video in a class! 

Zooming around: 17 tried and tested activities for your online classroom

How to hybrid: part 1: the set-up





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