Published: Oct. 14, 2020

By Jeff Bush

Many teachers have experienced the dreaded breakout room of silence - students not interacting with one another during remote small group discussions. If you haven’t, yet, then consider yourself lucky. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning has become ubiquitous and breakout sessions have emerged as a potential strategy to bring back peer to peer interaction during synchronous learning time. Students discussing their ideas with one another and learning from one another is not limited to in-person class time, but the remote discussion environment poses challenges that are new to both students and teachers. How do we help fulfill the vision of learning as a process enhanced by relationships? What can teachers do easily to improve learning?

The increased challenges of remote learning means there is an increased need for support. Teachers in the SchoolWide Labs project encountered challenges with peer to peer learning during remote instruction and they reached out to the SchoolWide Labs research team for support. In response, the researchers and teachers worked together to create resources to help. A video and user guide were developed to help teachers show students how to work with one another during small group breakout sessions. 

Both during in-person and remote instruction, people need clear examples and expectations for how to interact in small group discussions. During in-person learning, students can gather cues and clues from what they observe other groups are doing in discussions. However, during distance learning, there is the added challenge of not being able to see how other groups are participating. Learners only see their own breakout room. 

To help role model excellent breakout session participation, we created a video to watch with students. Four teachers from the SchoolWide Labs research project pretended to be students. During a simulated STEM class breakout room, participants coded a micro:bit using makecode block programming. During the video, teachers (pretending to be students) engage in the following:

  • Ask questions of one another
  • Provide encouragement 
  • Ask for help
  • Give alternate suggestions
  • Use evidence 
  • Talk aloud as they work. 

The video is for classroom use. Teachers can use it to help set up norms around breakout room participation. The captions call attention to specific examples of excellent participation. In the final minute of the video, viewers must identify what other examples of high quality participation they notice. 

Researchers and teachers on the SchoolWide Labs project created these usage notes as a companion to the video. The notes support the use of this video, or any video similar to it, in teachers’ classrooms. The document includes:

  • More information on how to use the video and what types of participation is expected of students during a breakout session. 
  • A list of sentence stems (starters) to support student participation. Adding these sentence starters to the chat can help promote small group discussion during distance learning breakout sessions.
    • Feel free to put the following in the chat as sentence starters:
      • I noticed _____ asks a question of _____ when they say _____.
      • _____ helps out _____ when they say _____.
      • _____ provides suggestions or modifications when they say _____.
      • _____ provides explanations and justifications for their thinking when they say _____.
      • _____ says out loud what they are thinking when they _____.

Looking for something even more effective than using this pre-made video in your classroom? Consider recording a similar one with your department, grade-level team or school. Familiar faces working on familiar tasks will help increase the impact of the video. 

Before recording, we recommend:

  • you review principles for excellent participation
  • assign examples of those practices that each participant should enact
  • remember to do a few practice runs 

Whether 2020 has you teaching remotely for the first time or you have been doing it for a while, exemplar videos are helpful. They show your students how they are expected to participate during breakout sessions. Having students reflect on what they see in the video and relate it to their own participation builds meta-cognitive skills too! And please let Jeff Bush know your feedback, struggles, successes with using and/or creating your own video.