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Addicted to Virtual Breakout Rooms? Get help now!

“(I)f the only tool you have is a hammer, (it is tempting)
to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Abraham Maslow

Just because your virtual classroom software enables breakout rooms doesn’t mean you have to design every — or even any — interaction for that tool.

And yet, too many instructional designers and trainers so cherish the advantages of small-group engagement that we don’t cool-headedly weigh the pros and cons of using Virtual Breakout Room (VBR) software. And we have yet to accept that some small-group activities that work smoothly in a face-to-face session are difficult, confusing or too time-consuming online.

Worst of all, unhealthy dependence on breakout activities in a virtual setting can thwart your students’ progress toward achieving learning objectives and can burn goodwill with novice participants.

A trainer’s favorite instrument

Why do we instructors and instructional designers favor small-group activities?

      ~ They’re easy to set up in a physical classroom, and work well for brainstorming and discussion, problem solving, completing an assignment, and reporting back to the larger group.

     ~ They allow individuals to contribute more openly and directly and in ways they might not within a larger group.

     ~ They give learners an opportunity to speak and be heard, collaborate, and apply learning in real time while the facilitator eavesdrops on each group, checking in and providing guidance.

      ~ They enable role-playing activities and coax learners to act as characters — greatly increasing the breadth and depth of learner engagement.

Drawbacks of electronic breakout activities

In virtual classrooms, however, the logistics of breakout activities are much more challenging — and often not worth the extra time and effort. How many of the following have you suffered through?

      ~ Novices struggle with microphones and presenter tools, and end up dragging their fellow breakout room participants into time-consuming troubleshooting.

      ~ The inevitable bad audio connections knock out a few participants.

      ~ Non-attentive participants miss the instructions for the assignment.

      ~ Presenters are not able to listen in, observe and provide course correction. Likewise, with participants divided into subgroups, most will not hear or see the producer’s instructions when she or he steps in to troubleshoot.

When electronic breakout rooms work well

The good news is that retraining yourself to choose VBRs judiciously will open the door to far more effective training and learning.

One of my best early experiences with virtual-classroom breakout groups involved a course called “Fundamentals of Finance and Accounting,” produced by the American Management Association.

The program was successful because the breakout assignments, in my view, were designed well and were appropriately challenging. Participants were given clear instructions, and were able to ask questions before moving to breakouts. Then, they were divided into groups and given a difficult problem to solve — involving a fictional but plausible accounting problem.

As the event producer, I’d listen in on conversations where learners argued about which accounting principle was best suited to their case. I observed as they consulted their notes and debated until they agreed on the method, applied it, achieved a solution, and posted their (correct) result in a poll that was then scored. It was easy to confirm that learning was happening!

This example supports other research showing that breakout activities succeed when:

      ~ They directly serve the learning objective, such as completing a challenging assignment, building team dynamics and group rapport, applying new skills, role-playing a scenario, and/or solving a problem as a team.

      ~ The assignment is appropriately challenging, and closely mirrors a real-life scenario.

      ~ Participants receive clear and detailed instructions BEFORE they move to breakout, and they know how to ask for help. (In a blended-learning format, participants would have received and read document(s) in advance that prepare them to quickly engage in challenging activities and deep discussions.)

     ~ Participants have the opportunity to opt into the breakout section, confirming that they’ve heard the instructions and are following.

     ~ Learners are directed to assume the following roles during and after the VBR activity: Discussion Leader, Note Taker, Timekeeper, and Spokesperson.

     ~ The more reserved learners get to practice applying new skills in a safe, low-pressure environment with other learners.

     ~ The designer has allowed enough time for technical setup and troubleshooting, performing the activity, and engaging in a debrief discussion.

Alternatives to Virtual Breakout Rooms

Our unrealistic expectations for breakout-room technology can blind us to the value of other available options.

In an online setting — where 50 learners can respond as quickly as five can — many learning objectives can be achieved more quickly in a whole group than in breakouts. They include: Icebreaker. Brainstorming ideas. Sharing opinions. Offering possible solutions. Responding to questions. Telling the facilitator what to click next.

Consider, too, some options that don’t involve a virtual classroom at all:

  • Assigning homework.

  • Encouraging students to work together in another setting, maybe over coffee.

  • Meeting at another time to complete the assignment, perhaps using the telephone or another low-end resource.


When selecting instructional methods, ask yourself: Will using VBR support my learning objectives? Is the time and effort required to set up and execute breakouts justified?

Or, am I leaning on VBR too much because I still hope to capture the small-group engagement I’ve experienced in physical classrooms?

With access to so many tools for online classrooms that support learner engagement more efficiently, why keep forcing the approach that won’t work? 

Remember, just having that tool doesn’t make it the answer to all problems.

Want to brainstorm about breaking your habit? Call me at 585.370.2341.

Updated 4.7.20

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