By Jackie Blain

Break Out rooms can be both a blessing and a curse if you have a class full of first year students that only look like black boxes. What Break Out rooms can’t be, however, is a faithful replica of the kind of group work we’re used to in the f2f world. The simple truth is that students aren’t any more likely to turn on their cameras in Break Out rooms than they are in the main room. They are, however, more likely to use their mics and collaborate with each other…IF they’re given tasks to perform. And that’s the big IF – just saying “go talk to each other” really doesn’t work.

About lurking… yes. Do it. It’s annoying maybe to keep clicking buttons, but at heart, it’s just the same as wandering from group to group in a f2f room. You don’t have to engage with them; I found that if they’re working (mics on, mics off, stuff being added to the Google Doc), it’s best just to let them go. And that’s true even if they’re just talking about games or politics or the weather – it creates a sense of community, and is a sneaky way of creating an inquiry community when they’re not looking.

If there’s absolutely no activity on the Doc or in the BO Room, then I start asking questions and just waiting them out until they start using the Chat or somebody turns on their mic. It takes patience, but it works!

Another important tip: I’ve found it works better if each student has contributes in the same way, and not using the usual “reporter, evaluator” method since students get annoyed about perceived inequities.

Here’s a specific assignment that has worked well for me:

Google Doc collaboration:

First I set up a series of Google Docs in our shared Drive (Group 1, Group 2, etc.).
Second, I gave a mini-lecture in the main room about genre and how it’s socially constructed.
Third, I went over a detailed activity sheet (Genre Scavenger Hunt (1)). In it, the students go on a scavenger hunt, in which they must each come back with an example of an artifact of their genre. I gave them a list of genres to choose from to get them started.
Fourth, I sent them into Break-Out rooms.
They found the Google Doc that corresponded to their BO Room number.
And then they got to work!
After a specified time, I brought them all back into the Main Room, and one person (more or less) walked us through what they found. We were able to look at the Google doc together—and we were able to see that each individual person had contributed, even though it was a group project.
Here are some other things you can do with Break Out rooms:

Use the Chat: Have them write a sentence or two on their own, then go into BO rooms, put what they wrote into the Room chat, and “talk” to each other that way. Inevitably, one or two will turn on their mics. One activity I did this way was to ask them to finish the prompt, “Writing is…” Since I wasn’t in the BO room, some of those discussions got pretty lively!
Create a Padlet wall (see the previous blog post about padlet below and/or check them out at and have students respond to a prompt. Then do BO rooms so they can compare what they’ve written specifically and react to other posts on the wall. This is like the Chat activity but more robust because they can see what the whole class wrote.
Do a Jigsaw activity where different groups have to write a brief summary and/or analysis of a specific section of the reading and report back to the class about their discussion. It’s helpful if students write down what they learned from their discussion on Google docs or Padlet (or even on the course website) as well.
Peer Workshop. Set them up by having them post drafts ahead of time, then providing (on Google Docs or elsewhere) a list of things to look for/ways to respond (and, of course, walking them through it before they break off), and giving them a specific outcome for the Break Out room time (a group Workshop Report where they all talk about what they saw works well).
Ice breakers: There are a lot of fun ones out there for synchronous classrooms. One of my favorites is: “the ship is sinking, everybody takes seven things with them, but there’s not enough room for everything, and you as a group have to decide on the seven things total that you can keep… and toss the rest overboard.” As a group, they make a list. When we go back to the Main Room, it’s fun to see who kept what and why (I use the whiteboard for that).
Initial research: This is a great activity for when they’re beginning to do research by asking questions instead of starting with answers. I showed my class a video of Greta Thunberg (with no context), then had them each write what they knew about what they saw, what questions they had and finally put them into Break Out rooms to read their questions and start finding answers. They had to write a brief report about questions and research that they shared with the Main Room later. Again, it is good to make sure that everyone is responsible for some (equal) aspect of this research so that one student does not end up doing all of the work!
The University of Illinois Springfield has a ton of things you can adapt into Break Out room activities:
One word of warning: using Break Out rooms all the time is just as counter-productive as never using them at all. We would never do the same thing in class everyday in the f2f world for that very reason – they can get bored, and boredom leads to disengagement.