Picture this: 8 a.m. lecture. A group of five students. Microphones muted. Cameras off. A prompt to discuss or a problem set to work on together. One single attempt at conversation.
*Unmutes microphone* “Um…hello? I think we’re supposed to be going over question two…” *Cue fifteen minutes of dead silence where one student leaves the meeting and you’re pretty sure the others have taken some permanent vow of silence without telling you*
Oh, to experience the joy of breakout rooms.
Zoom classes have been in full swing for an entire year, which means that professors and TAs have scrambled to find new ways to engage their classes. At first glance, breakout rooms seem to provide the optimal solution: Professors can choose to create rooms with certain students or randomize the grouping process. Breakout rooms simulate group work typically done during in-person lectures, and provide students the chance to interact with each other in a virtual space. There’s even an “ask for help” button in case of questions. I mean, how could anything go wrong?
Well, I have the list of grievances in both alphabetical and chronological order, whichever you prefer. But the Sparknotes version is this: Breakout rooms are just so freaking awkward. Most times, you’re with people you’ve never even seen before. And, since nobody wants to turn their camera on, you’ll probably never see them. It’s online speed dating but worse. Any rules put out are impossible to enforce, so everyone waits around in anticipation for the professor to (mercifully) close the rooms. Not even the random check-ins from the professor can assuage the lapses of silence. The learning benefit that breakout rooms should provide deteriorates when human nature is thrown in the mix.
I’m not saying that breakout rooms are always useless. During packed office hours, creating separate groups based on question type allows students to work amongst themselves before getting help, which can save time for both students and TAs. The difference here, as opposed to breakout rooms during class time, is that students are usually willing to work with and help each other. The desperate race against a tight homework deadline trumps any awkwardness that may arise. We have evidence that breakout rooms can be a beneficial tool, so what are the best ways for teachers and students to make the most out of them?
Some of my best experiences in breakout rooms have occurred when the professor lays out a specific task that can be accomplished in around five to seven minutes. Any longer and even the most vocal bunch will run out of things to say. Any shorter and it leaves no time for getting acquainted with the other members in the room. A professor I had last semester also assigned each room a different question and had every group detail their answer on a different page of a Google Slides presentation. This forced everyone to participate since we knew that the work we did would be public.
Zoom also has a feature where everyone on the call can choose which room to go to. One idea could be to let students pick their rooms, and have those be the designated rooms for the month or unit before switching up the groups again. That way, we aren’t put on the spot with strangers in each class, but rather have the chance to get comfortable working with the same people for a while. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about “Zoom University” is how hard it can be to develop connections with others in the same classes. Changing up the groups once in a while counteracts that issue.
We don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, so at least for the near future, breakout rooms will likely remain a constant staple in our lives. For these potential solutions to work, everyone needs to be on board. That means turning on the camera if at all possible to show that you’re willing to engage with the discussion. And when some brave soul unmutes their microphone to start the conversation, please don’t leave them hanging.
Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.