Students in breakout rooms? Interject instead of interrupt.
While the Blog recently went on an unintended hiatus, I am looking ahead to reflecting on this semester's experimentations. What worked particularly well? What didn't? And why?
The Problem: All by myself...
When we lost our classrooms in spring 2020 due to campus shut-downs in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I was reluctant to give up the experience of small-group conversations, which often feature prominently as part of my in-person teaching.
In a typical face-to-face class session, I send students into small groups where they engage in open-ended conversations in response to a question or series of questions, conduct passage analyses together, complete a worksheet, etc. Sometimes all groups will explore the same set of passages or problems, while at other times the work is divided amongst the groups, with each one reporting back to the class afterward so that we cover a wider swath of territory collectively.
These days, however, I send students to their breakout rooms in Zoom. The problem is that instead of circling a classroom space and finding strategic opportunities to jump in and work with groups for a few minutes each, I am now left staring at my own screen. It's a lonely feeling, that "main room" emptiness of a black box on mute.
Staring at the void at first seemed inevitable, however, since I had made one decision early on: I would not join breakout rooms.
Despite my best intentions, I felt it would be too cumbersome, time-consuming, and awkward to join each room individually and circulate the way I might do fluidly in a classroom setting. With four or five separate breakout rooms opened, for example, it would take at least 4-5 minutes just to enter a room, have the students adjust to my presence there, and solicit responses or conversation from the group members, accompanied by all the awkward Zoom pauses. This could account for more than half the time we aimed to spend in breakout rooms altogether. How could I adequately devote just a few minutes with each group without leaving the rest of the groups twiddling their thumbs? It didn't seem possible.
Enter: a few "experiments."
Experiment #1: Note-taking
At first, in the spring, I tried to have each group take notes based on their discussion, as a record not only for my benefit but for other groups as well. This strategy worked well, with some clear limitations.
Each week, before we separated into breakout rooms, I asked every group to have one volunteer keep track of their conversation. We spent about 10-15 minutes in breakout rooms as students discussed a passage assigned to them from our reading. One person in each group would record notes; then, after class, they would send me a link to their Google document or a photo of hand-written notes.
I assembled all of the class's notes into a single Word document and posted that assembled document to the learning management system (LMS). This way, the entire class would have access to all the group's notes, which was especially useful on days that the groups looked at different passages from one another.
When we returned to the main Zoom room for discussion afterward, students had plenty to say about the larger topic at hand, since they had worked with their peers on a smaller scale. We managed to maintain the intimacy of their small community, which was crucial during such a difficult time.
Another variation of this note-taking strategy would be to have each group contribute their ideas into one shared spreadsheet, rather than separate documents, so that everyone sees the other groups' feedback in real time.
While I like the idea of having one dedicated space that everyone in the class can access, using a single document/spreadsheet that is being edited "live" by multiple hands can actually be a bit distracting. The document itself can often move awkwardly when other contributors are editing. In addition, groups can easily piggyback on each other, rather than trust their own group's input. But if this strategy works well for you, why not try it!
Benefits of note-taking in breakout rooms:
Shared record for students and instructor
Groups can report to one another without taking up class time
Students feel validated that their hard work will be recognized/observed by instructor
Group work produces a concrete deliverable
Stable document created as finished product
Downsides of note-taking in breakout rooms:
Other group members may not read each other's notes after class
Instructor is still left out of dynamic group conversations
No faculty-student contact at all
Stable document as finished product (without a sense of continual contribution, evolution, and development - more on this below)
Experiment #2: Shared Google Docs
This fall, I derived a compromise between busting into the breakout rooms and sitting all alone. I tested out different ways to use shared Google documents.
Editing shared docs allows students to work together on a concrete exercise while also permitting me to "watch" and check in with them from the sidelines.
What I have liked best about this strategy is that a group's members can be writing or editing a document together while I use the Comments feature to add notes in the margins in response to their active work. This scenario means I don't disrupt what they are working on together or discussing at any particular moment. I can track thoughts that I want the group to circle back to, which they can choose to address at a later time. Meanwhile, I can jump over to another group by simply switching browser tabs.
Google Documents with Breakout Rooms
Here are some suggested steps for implementing shared Google documents with instructor interjections during breakout-room sessions:
In advance of class, create one document with a series of questions, problems, or passages to which you want the class to respond. [Since I'm currently teaching first-year writing, our exercises revolve around editing student work, so I created, for example, a document with sentences from students' paper drafts that I wanted groups to edit collectively (i.e., thesis claims or topic sentences). This would work equally well for problem sets, reflection questions, quote analyses or responses, etc.]
Generate separate Google documents for each intended breakout room (either by making copies of your original or breaking it up into distinct questions for each group). NOTE: Even if each group will be examining the same worksheet or material, it can be helpful to create separate Google documents for each group so that they don't have to worry about other groups' editing process, which can sometimes make the document jump around on them (due to added page breaks, etc.). Separate docs also gives each group a sense of independence and control, though some activities do work well with a single document so that everyone can have simultaneous access. I did, at times, have all groups in one document, so it really depends upon the exercise which will work best. Experiment!
Within a designated time block, say 10-12 minutes, ask each group to conduct the assigned activity: work through a series of questions together and make notes about their answers; solve a problem while documenting their work; highlight or edit important pieces of a passage and comment on their interpretations; etc.
Once you send students to the breakout rooms, minimize your Zoom screen and open each of the shared Google docs in separate tabs. (I keep my headphones in so that I can hear the chime if students enter our Zoom meeting late or ask for help from their breakout room.)
Read what students are writing in the document as edits, answers, or bullet-point comments. As you see fit, use the Comments feature to add notes on the side of the document. You might, for example, help students think more complexly about a topic they are making notes on. You might provide additional suggested edits directly into their sentences. You might remark on ways they can think about further revision.
For this first sample exercise, students talked in groups to articulate framing questions that could form the center of research projects about a community of importance to them. While they wrote their questions into a shared document, I offered sidebar comments to help them think about ways to narrow or refine ideas while they were still actively dialoguing with their peers (as opposed to providing static feedback outside of class).
Here, in a more recent sample, is a shared Google document where students tailored their thesis statements together in peer review groups. This activity was even more interactive, as students amended their sentences "live" in response to my feedback in the comments. Students have also continued to return to this document after class and are revising their sentences based on my feedback. During the exercise, I used a combination of commenting as well as making direct stylistic or conceptual edit recommendations to their sentences:
When students left breakout rooms and returned to the main room after this exercise, one student mentioned right away that he appreciated the brief "make strong claims!" comment, which helped him see how a minor shift from "can" to "will" (as I edited in his sentence) would make his viewpoint all the more persuasive. During the exercise, other students would change their sentences as I watched the screen, amending their syntax in response to suggestions I was making in the comments, such as inverting the order of a sentence to highlight a main point or changing diction to more clearly define their terms.
So often, we provide students with feedback on their writing in silos. I send my notes. Maybe they apply them in a revision draft at an entirely different time and place. But having the opportunity work in the same space in real-time with students through their writing—while they have the added benefit of discussing with peers exactly how to execute a recommended change—was truly a remarkable change of pace.
A few tips on setting up Shared Google Documents
Don't forget to tell students what to do! Be sure to place brief but clear instructions at the top of each shared doc or on a separate page, in a header, or even on a separate introductory slide, if using Google Slides. Students will appreciate being reminded of the task at hand, and this will also make it much easier for both you and them to look back on the documents later.
You don't need to share the documents with students ahead of class time. Instead, provide the appropriate URL links in the Chat function of Zoom before students leave the "main" room. Pause to ask them to ensure they can all click on the link and get access (this will avoid you having to troubleshoot technology issues across multiple breakout rooms). You'll want to find the link for each document by clicking "Share" in the upper-right-hand corner and selecting "Copy Link." Before you do so, however, check out tip #3.
In advance, be sure to set the "share" settings for each document so that everyone has easy access. Click "Share" in the upper-right-hand corner; then adjust the settings to "Anyone with the link" and "Editor" (see screenshots below). If you restrict access, students who are not actively logged into their institutional account or who have multiple Google accounts may confront access barriers that you'll want to avoid.
As I develop my courses for the spring 2021 semester, I will be thinking about more ways to incorporate these sorts of strategic collaborative exercises into our weekly meetings. I'd love to hear your techniques and tricks! Feel free to drop a line below to share how you've linked Google documents and instructor comments with Zoom breakout rooms.
Breakout rooms? Interject—and interact—instead of interrupt.