Breakout Room Breakthroughs: Opening Up Before Shutting Down

“Okay everyone, unless there are any questions about the assignment, I’m going to put you into breakout rooms. One more time, in the chat, here’s the link to the assignment. Annnnnnnd, here we go.” Then I click the button to send them off to their algorithmically structured group, coded by the video conferencing app.

Busying myself with typical teacher administrivia, I give my students approximately seven minutes to get warm as a group before “stopping by.” And now it’s time to visit the first group. I click to enter, and when I get there, I see four squares with profile pictures. The chat is empty, and no one is talking. I ask, “How’s it going in here, do we have any questions?” A moment of palpable silence passes. Bloop. I see a text jump at the edge of my screen: “No.” Then one more alert, with that symbol known as “the carrot” ^ .

Perplexed, I say, “Hmmmm, well, this is a group assignment, but I don’t hear you talking, and I don’t see anything happening. Are you working?” Another pregnant pause. Bloop. “Yes we worked it all out before you got here… we’re good.” I respond, “Okay, well… if you have any questions, just push the ‘ask for help button.’” Quick on the draw this time, a student sends a “thanks” followed quickly by another student sending “ty.”

The next room isn’t any better. After visiting six rooms, only one of them was talking, and the conversation was only half-focused on the content of the assignment.


Before a global pandemic shuttered schools worldwide, I was at the top of my game getting students to interact around academic content. I had created a discussion protocol that worked wonders getting students talking course content with one another, I had my room laid out as a thinking classroom, and students were finding their voices as I was learning to enlist their help in co-creating the content of OUR shared learning experiences. 

Then it all changed.

When everything shifted to students learning from home (and me teaching from my garage), I hit a crisis (one of many): I was denied access to the way I typically engaged my students in course content. I was crushed, to say the least. My students and I had lost that shared space where we all could come together with the purposes of clearing up confusion, expressing our reactions, and engaging in fruitful discussion. Instead, in a manner of speaking, we had all become uninvited guests in one another’s homes, the classroom had invaded our private spaces.

At the same time I was mourning the loss of our shared academic space, I was facing the same overwhelming experience of having to learn a bunch of new technology all at once, so that even my can-do attitude to find solutions and work arounds to everyday teaching problems was put on the back burner… the way back burner.

Trial and Error

When I started to find my feet teaching to a distant audience and starting to feel ready to get my students interacting with each other online, I started to experiment. Bear in mind, I was not really adjusting my “learn at home” instructional practice, I just started putting students into groups to work together. First, I tried groups of four, then groups of two, then larger groups. It wasn’t working. And that’s when I stumbled upon my first insight: I can’t give all of my students individual copies of the assignments then put them together in a breakout room and expect them to interact.

I made the first shift in my perspective and started to think, “If I am going to ask students, who are in some way uninvited guests in each other’s homes, to unmute their microphones and talk to each other, then I need to create tasks where the interaction adds value for them.” To say it more concisely, how do I design tasks and assignments where “together is much better”? 

Prior to this, I was setting up a scenario where students could opt to work “alongside” one another instead of with each other. Picturing an in-person scenario, this is similar to passing out a worksheet to all students, seating them next to one another, telling them they should work together, then watching them choose to work independently. Nothing about the design of the task encouraged students to work together, and simply putting them in closer proximity to one another did not encourage talking the way I was picturing.

The second insight I had about why my breakout rooms weren’t working according to my vision occurred during a letter grade conference I had a with student. When I was asking her about how she had exhibited characteristics of one of our speaking and listening targets in the previous grading period, she told about her experience in breakout rooms, and what she shared was an epiphany.

My student had two differing experiences in breakout rooms. She would enter some where she and her classmates were quick to unmute their microphones and others that were eerily quiet. In presenting the contrasts, she would share that when she found herself in the quiet breakout rooms, she had learned that if she would “go first” in unmuting and talking to others, then others would follow along, and eventually the awkward silence would pass and everyone was interacting comfortably. 

That’s when lightning struck! Regardless of who is in the breakout room, “How can I encourage the shortest possible amount of time between entering the breakout room and getting the first person to unmute their microphone?” As I turned this question over and over in my mind, I saw that the difficulty was in making that decision to unmute. I know that when I am feeling uncomfortable to unmute in a breakout room, I sit back as long as I possibly can. 

At this point, seeing that the “act of unmuting” was the challenge, I saw it as my job to make unmuting as easy as possible. I also saw that starting with an academically challenging task would decrease the likelihood of choosing to unmute. So the first part of the breakout room task would need to present a very low barrier to participate, something that would be inviting for participants to lean into on their own.

As cheesy as it might seem, I started to shift the first part of the breakout room task to include an ice breaker, and holy moly did the amount of unmuting and talking quickly increase! I started entering breakout rooms earlier, and I would hear smiles in the voices talking, laughter even. It was starting to feel more like the natural interactions that can happen in-person in the classroom.

All of that wonderful interaction was great, but I noticed that as the students got into the academic task, the breakout rooms would quiet back down. Sure there was “more” interaction than before I included icebreakers, but the conversation would fade into occasional check-ins when getting busy with the task, and I wondered why that was.

I started looking at the academic content I was asking my students to interact around. Much of it was still in that realm of work that could be done independently, where the students did not need to speak to one another to complete it. Also, based on my previous 15 years in the classroom, I knew that the tasks themselves could cause a barrier to interaction because students might be thinking, “What if I am wrong? What if I say something stupid? It’s better if I just listen and watch.” 

Asking the students to interact around an academically challenging task, where the work produced was a direct response to an academic challenge, was too demanding for many of my students to risk using their voice in a group setting–again, one where they were all simultaneously guests in one another’s households.

And this is where I arrived at my third insight: Student questions, insights, and ideas need to be the center of the interaction. Would they be given an academically challenging task to complete together? Yes, of course! But the heart of the interaction, the part that they would record with me, the action that would show they were “successful” would be the questions they have, the half-baked ideas that popped in their heads as they engaged with the content, and even the parts they may have scoffed at. It would be their reactions to the academic content, not the academic task itself.

What do I mean? As an ELA teacher, I ask the students to do their fair share of reading. As a self-directed life-long learner, I get more out of a text I am reading if I am reading alongside peers–people who will keep a similar schedule, who will engage with the text, and who are willing to set aside some time to discuss it. I have been a part of formal groups, and less formal groups, but the ones where the questions and insight come from within the group are the best. When we are guided by the sparks we all bring from interacting with challenging text, our conversations centered on what we’re thinking as we read, the more I lean into those conversations, which contrast with the times where the group is given a list of pre-scripted questions to respond to in a group. Those questions are not poor questions by any stretch, but they are not where the group’s energy wells up. By extension, it’s not the text that brings life to the group, it’s the people in the group that bring that spark that can turn into a fire. It’s that fire that enhances each individual’s experience with the text.

I wanted to bring this same experience to my students; I always have. And at this point it became abundantly clear that placing students in groups and giving them work to complete together wasn’t going to do the trick of sparking great conversation. They needed to come together around their reactions to the content instead.

Now there was clear criteria for structuring breakout rooms. I could design the experience to…

  • Put student insights at the center of their interactions
  • Have tasks designed for students to need to work together
  • Get students unmuting as fast as possible

That last criterion was my final barrier. I was doing what I could to encourage talking before moving the students into groups, but it wasn’t transferring to their breakout room time together. I didn’t want to force students to unmute, so I did my best to encourage them. And this is where I added two elements to my preparation that really started to open the floodgates of student sharing.

Designing The User Experience

The first element to getting students talking as fast as possible was to smooth the path by creating a seamless “user experience,” or UX as it is called in the app industry. Keeping in mind that the challenge here was getting students to unmute and participate, it became my mission to remove all other barriers. Considering the moment when the host places each participant in a breakout room to the moment the participant unmutes the microphone, I wanted each of them to have the following UX:

  • Open the application that has the links to the activity (for me, a Google Slide in preview mode)
  • Click the button to go to my breakout room
  • Arrive at the breakout room, click on the application that corresponds with the breakout room number
  • Enter the application (for my students, this is either Jamboard, Google Docs, or Kami), and respond to a low-stakes, low-pressure question
  • Unmute to share with my group

I said there were two elements to getting students to unmute quicker, and I slid right past the second one in the bullet list above: Start with an ice-breaker. If academically challenging questions keep a student from pressing unmute, then the first question should not be academic. I look at this first task purposefully. Not only do I want students to unmute quickly, but I would like to foster a sense of community, so I will choose questions that open them up in positive ways (more on that to come in future posts).

Since this is all so abstract, here’s a peak at a recent jamboard seniors from my ERWC course worked through as we started a new mini-module (the questions for the jam frames initially came from the “Introducing Genre as Rhetoric” mini-module, developed by Ginny Crisco):

Now let’s see if we can bring both of those elements together into a clear cut process:

  • Students and teacher are all together on the main video conference call
  • The teacher gives an overview of what students will do when in breakout rooms
  • The teacher shares a Google Slide–in preview mode, permission set to “anyone with the link can view”–of the breakout rooms in the chat.
  • The teacher moves students into the breakout rooms.
  • Each student clicks on the breakout room on the Google Slide that corresponds to the breakout room where they have been placed with a number of their peers.
  • They all arrive at the same app (could be a shared document, shared slideshow, shared PDF they will mark up together, or whiteboard app)
  • The first instruction that greets them is to make a shared decision about which color sticky/highlighter/font will represent each person.
  • Then they will have a silly and quick icebreaker to complete, to help foster a sense of fun, but also to show each person that they can be successful with part of the overall task.
  • After that, they will get to more academic tasks.

In a situation where students have been passively attending the video conference, this is the fastest way to get the greatest number of students from the main video conference to unmuting in a breakout room that I am aware of. (If you have a trick for making this even faster, by all means, share in the comments below). 

Stepping back and looking at all of the bullet points above, it is worth noting the UX principle behind this design: In order for this to be a seamless experience for my students (the users), I must do a lot of preparation ahead of time. Relatedly, I don’t know to what extent we think about how much work goes into our click-through experiences on websites and the apps on our phone. The best sites and apps make the experience very easy for the user. Whenever I have a clunky or rough experience, I get frustrated to the point of never returning to that site or app. Some sites and apps have teams of people who focus solely on UX, the design, the aesthetics, and the function of an app. As teachers, we need to put ourselves in the position of our students, really considering their experience, and how we can design a better UX for them, so they can get the most out of the content of our classes.

When I started designing a click-through breakout room experience for my students, one where each step was easy to navigate, one that caused them to unmute as quickly as possible, one that allowed them to taste success at each step, and one that put their thoughts and reactions at the center, I entered rooms that were full of life. There have been a number of times where, midway through the experience, I had the feeling that I was back in the classroom, surrounded by the welcome noise of students chattering about their take on the content of the day. There have been a few occasions where the students have been so engaged that when I stop by the breakout room, they just ignore me and I feel like I am interrupting their flow, so I just quietly move on to the next room.

The principles I have revealed do not only apply to a distance learning model, they also work in hybrid and in-person models as well (though in person, there is far less clicking). This post has been an overview of what’s possible. In the upcoming posts, I will walk you through the process of making this a reality in your teaching context; I will show you HOW

Here’s what’s coming:

  • Creating your classroom space: setting up folders and permissions
  • The Lesson Plan: setting up the collaborative tasks
  • UX is EVERYTHING: Designing a seamless, click through experience 

Thank you for reading! If it’s not too much trouble, let’s connect in the comment section.

  • What is a new insight you gained from this post?
  • What is one breakout room breakthrough you’ve experienced?