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Fostering Deeper Discussions using Zoom Breakout Rooms

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It doesn’t take a very in-depth literature search to find research supporting the idea that student-to-student interaction is important for learning. Digging deeper, we can find that student-to-student interaction is also important for student well-being and persistence. For instance, Sandstrom and Dunn (2014) found that on days when students interacted with other students, they had “greater feelings of belonging and greater happiness” (p. 918). And students who report feelings of belonging are more likely to persist at their studies (Hausmann et al., 2009).

Since August 24, all NC State undergraduate classes have been online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many classes use Zoom to conduct virtual synchronous online classes. From Aug. 10 – Sept. 10, 141,000 Zoom meetings had taken place at NC State, with an average of 4,500 per day. NC State students, faculty and staff had collectively spent 66 million minutes in Zoom meetings, averaging 2.1 million per day.

When classes are online like today (see information above), students have fewer natural and spontaneous opportunities to interact — there is no chatting with their tablemates or neighbors before and after class. And the interactions that do happen online sometimes reflect “the familiar awkwardness of virtual meetings, where the rhythm of conversational interaction is thrown wildly askew by technological hiccups and the absence of visual cues.” (Norman, 2017). Faculty member and CALS Associate Director for Academic Programs Kim Allen, notes, “Connection is often taken for granted in face-to-face instruction, but in distance education, we, the faculty, need to be intentional in creating opportunities for connection.”

Class discussions are a common tool for fostering student-to-student interaction. Instructors who want to conduct whole-class discussions in Zoom might struggle with some of the awkwardness that Norman describes when they try to manage the logistics of passing the microphone around, and work with a gallery view of the class that might only allow them to see a subset of their students at a time. These challenges, on top of others common for large group discussions regardless of class modality (students feeling anxious about speaking out, quiet students preferring to observe, outspoken students dominating the discussion, and discussions taking up a lot of class time when there are many topics to cover) might leave us wondering: How can we get students interacting with each other, learning from each other, and reaping all the benefits of participating in a learning community even as they are scattered across the state, nation and world?

Zoom offers many interactive tools for classes. Instructors can poll their students, invite comments and questions in the chat, ask for non-verbal interactions, and invite annotation on shared screens and whiteboard. But Breakout Rooms provide, by far, the best opportunities for student-to-student interaction. Just like putting students in small groups for discussion in a face-to-face setting, putting students into Breakout Rooms in Zoom encourages quieter students and less confident students to speak out. Small groups raise the level of accountability, encouraging all students to be actively involved in class. And each Breakout Room may discuss a different topic and report back to the whole class, allowing for coverage of more material. Breakout Rooms in Zoom might actually be easier in some ways than small groups in physical classrooms: the limitations of fixed seating and of the time necessary for students to move around the room to join groups are not issues in Zoom. According to Zoom, new Breakout Room features are expected this fall, so stay tuned!

NC State faculty are reporting great success with Breakout Rooms. Lisa Paciulli, a lecturer in Biological Sciences, reports, “In Introductory Biology (BIO 181) lecture and lab, the students have told us how much they love the breakout rooms and working with just a handful of students. It is so much less overwhelming than being in the main Zoom classroom session with more than 100 students. In the breakout rooms, after students introduce themselves to one another, they often exchange contact information. This allows them to continue the group activity outside of class, and to not only feel more connected to their classmates, but to not have to complete assignments on their own.” 

Two faculty offer great ideas for how they have used Breakout Rooms in their classes. ELPHD Teaching Associate Professor Angie Smith describes how she uses Breakout Rooms: As I begin the Zoom session, I share a prompt, image, or discussion question as we begin our time together. Then, after describing the prompt/directive and amount of time students will be in the Breakout Rooms, I move students into Breakout Rooms to discuss, share, and create connections.” Dr. Sarah Egan Warren, technical communication specialist in Advanced Analytics, describes how she pairs Google Docs with Breakout Rooms citing several advantages: “…I was able to stay in the main Zoom room and not cause a distraction in the breakout rooms. Plus, I was able to read the notes on the Google Doc as they were being generated. I could see the common themes emerging across the breakout rooms. I could also gauge when things were naturally winding down. When I called the students back to the main Zoom room, I was able to ask leading questions based on the themes I noted.” 

All of the instructors quoted above have embraced Breakout Rooms as a key tool to enable personal student-to-student connections and to foster deeper discussions in class. We hope you’ll give them a try in your own online classroom!

Get Started

Want to get started using Breakout Rooms for student-to-student interaction that enhances learning and helps students feel more connected, happier, and a part of their learning community? Check out the resources below. 

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Hausmann, L., Ye, F., Schofield, J., & Woods, R. (2009). Sense of Belonging and Persistence in White and African American First-Year Students. Research in Higher Education, 50(7), 649-669.

M. Norman. (2017, June 26). Synchronous online classes: 10 tips for engaging students. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910–922.