Small-Group Instruction Using Virtual Breakout Rooms

Dr. Lamont Moore
Dr. Lamont Moore
Elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, Gardner-Webb University, NC

Learning is at its best when there are multiple opportunities for students to have meaningful instructional conversations with their peers and teachers. These are powerful moments because they allow students to express what they know and receive feedback from other students and the teacher. When student-teacher ratios are smaller, instructional conversations are easier to conduct and support. Teachers accomplish this for students through a common instructional strategy known as small-group instruction.

What is Small Group Instruction?

Small group instruction is an instructional strategy that is used to reteach, reinforce, or enrich specific skills or concepts with students. It usually follows whole-group instruction and provides a reduced student-teacher ratio with small groups ranging in size between three to six students (Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education).

There are various methods teachers use to form small groups. The most effective small groups are formed by analyzing student achievement data related to the academic gaps or needs for enrichment that are shared within the group of students. Traditionally, small-group instruction has only been known to occur through physical face-to-face interactions within brick and mortar school settings. However, educators are currently exploring the implementation of small-group instruction in eLearning classrooms. They are utilizing a feature found on video communication platforms (such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Go-to-Meeting) called the virtual breakout room.

What are Virtual Breakout Rooms?

A virtual breakout room is a feature that allows the meeting host to split a large group of participants into several small groups. The meeting host normally has the option to pre-assign group members to specific groups (prior to the meeting) or have the participants randomly assigned to small groups (during the meeting). Each small group becomes a separate room within the meeting and each of the participants are able to see and interact with one another in small groups. The meeting host may visit each of the groups to check the progress and aid in facilitating group tasks. Depending on the video communication platform, participants may have access to other features within their small groups such as chat messaging, an interactive whiteboard, or screen sharing.

Strategies for Small-Group Instruction Using Virtual Breakout Rooms

Virtual breakout rooms provide very different experiences for meeting participants by disturbing the monotony of only hearing from and interacting with the meeting host. However, when using this in an online learning classroom, teachers should be mindful not use it too frequently and utilize it solely for the purpose of breaking the monotony of a learning session. Here are some strategies to consider when using virtual breakout rooms for student learning.

  • Select the Best Video Communication Platform – Make sure that you do your research prior to planning your first lesson that will utilize virtual break out rooms. There are some platforms that allow you to utilize breakout rooms for free while others charge for these services. Also, some special tools (the chatroom, white board, screen sharing capabilities, etc.) are options within the breakout rooms on some platforms but not others. Be sure to consider how user-friendly the online platforms are for you. For some platforms, initiating a breakout room is one simple click while on others it requires multiple steps.
  • Train Your Students – Students must be trained on proper behavioral and learning expectations for virtual small group instruction before engaging in them. Many times students function as an observer in sessions as if they were watching an online video. However, it is critical that students are active participants in virtual activities. Consider doing practice group sessions to teach your students how to engage with their peers and how to effectively collaborate in a virtual classroom. If you are utilizing special tools within the virtual breakroom (screen sharing, chatroom, etc.), you will need to make sure that your students know how to properly utilize these tools. Even if you have trained your students on how to participate in face-to-face small-group instructional sessions, it is still important that you train them on how to do this virtually. Do not assume that the face-to-face training will translate in the virtual setting.
  • Choose Activities That Are Not Teacher Dependent – Once you disperse your students into small-group breakout rooms, most of them will begin their small-group sessions without you. Therefore you must provide activities that students are able to engage in without you being present in their small-group sessions. Try to avoid assigning tasks that do not require collaboration as it will defeat the purpose of using a breakout room. For example, instead of asking students to read a long reading passage individually until you join their group, you should have them briefly read a shorter passage and then engage in a collaborative exercise (group discussion, group brainstorm, or completion of a graphic organizer) with their peers. You will then be able to extend their thinking or reinforce their work when you check in with them.
  • Monitor for Student Engagement – There are many opportunities for students to disengage from eLearning sessions. In fact, students often look engaged on camera but are not actively learning. Consider incorporating activities that have built-in accountability measures. For example, when checking in, you may want to ask each person to share their screen to “show their work” on an assignment. You should also consider assigning individual roles or tasks to each person within the small group. This will prevent students from casually disengaging.
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