Reflecting on a Year of Teaching during COVID: Breakout Sessions

May 25, 2021

The first round of our Experience Teaching Survey results are in, and we have already found some important takeaways from those teaching online:

  • The vast majority of online courses included a synchronous video-conferencing component.
  • All professors who used video conferencing also created accompanying slide presentations for their classes.
  • Nearly all live classes included breakout sessions.

Let’s take a closer look at how educators are using breakout sessions, as well as some best practices.

Deeper Dive: Online Breakout Sessions

Breakout sessions are a great tool to increase interactivity and a sense of community online. If you’re teaching a large class, breakout sessions allow students to have smaller group discussions that might not otherwise be possible. If you’re teaching a smaller class, breakout sessions are still a useful tool that lets students discuss different issues simultaneously and then bring their insights back to share with the rest of the class.
Photo of a student looking at a screen with a breakout session

What Is the Right Size for a Breakout Room Session?

One of the biggest questions that our Learning Experience Design team is asked when working with faculty is “What is the best size for a breakout room session?” Our team advises that smaller groups are most successful, and our survey respondents agree—42% preferred breakout rooms with 2–3 students, and 48% preferred breakout rooms with 4–6 students.

Tips for Better Online Breakout Sessions

Some of our survey respondents mentioned that they’re still struggling with managing effective breakout sessions. If you’re still finding that breakout sessions are not quite as engaging as you’d hoped, here are a few strategies for making them more successful:

  • Give students a clear task—with something they need to submit at the end—to do in the breakout room. An activity sheet or presentation slide for the group to submit helps ensure that everyone in the breakout session is actively participating in the learning. Even asking students to be prepared to present their work or share their ideas after their breakout session can help ensure students stay on task.
  • Give students enough time to complete an activity, but not so much that they become bored. It’s better for everyone to still be excited and engaged when the session timer comes up than it is to have people twiddling their thumbs for the last five minutes you have set aside for breakout sessions.
  • Be strategic about when you pop into breakout sessions. While it can be helpful to pop in to make sure students stay on task or to answer questions, doing so too often can disrupt the flow of the conversation or distract students from the task at hand.

How Is Your Online Teaching Going?

We are still actively collecting data for our Experience Teaching Survey, so if you haven’t yet participated in the survey, please do so! We will continue to share insights from the survey as well as best practices for online teaching as we collect more data.

Want even more tips on how to be a successful teacher online? Check out Faculty Success, our series of practical, self-paced professional development modules that give faculty the information they need to transition to teaching online.

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