Breakout rooms: awkward not overused

by Annika Engelbrecht, Opinions Contributor
graphic by Kaila Hanna

Once the blue “Join Room” button appears on the screen, it can mean only one thing; breakout rooms. Waiting to connect to the room, causes a couple of thoughts to flash through my mind. I’m hoping for a good group, one that will get things done, and also for minimal awkward silence. The screen stops connecting showing everyone else, but after a few seconds pass, the awkward wait begins, proving that my second hope isn’t going to come true. Finally, someone breaks the ice and we start talking. 

This school year, teachers have been using breakout rooms to foster discussion. Breakout rooms reflect the small-group dynamics of in-person school — there’s always the vehement student, the remiss slacker and the kid that doesn’t want to be there. Transferred online, they’re filled with awkward silence rather than mild nuisance. While breakout rooms might be prone to awkward moments, they are still worthwhile in that they make work much easier and clearer. 

Like anything, breakout rooms have a time and a place, and (most) teachers have gradually learned when to use them. Teachers often use breakout rooms for smaller-scale discussions or problem-solving, asking students to read and analyze a passage or work on a problem set. In-person conversations are more meaningful and effective in small groups, explaining teachers’ motivation to create breakout rooms. For quieter students, small discussions offer a less-intimidating way to contribute to class conversations.

Beyond academic benefits, in a year void of human interaction, breakout rooms offer classmates the opportunity to bond. For example, though sharing about our weekends can feel mundane, persevering through the inevitable awkwardness lets us learn more about each other than we would have otherwise. Working and asking questions in front of a small group rather than a teacher and large class facilitates easier participation and discussion.

Breakout rooms allow students to explain a concept to their peers without a teacher’s assistance, fostering both peer-to-peer connections and demonstrating advanced understanding, so teachers are wise to use this more personal approach. Teachers often maintain the same breakout rooms for a few weeks at a time, which gives students the opportunity to get to know each other more deeply than is possible in a full group setting. 

No matter how brief, breakout rooms provide students with time to socialize. Often, a 90-minute class is spent listening to a lecture or doing independent work; there are few opportunities for discussions. Breakout rooms, however, are conducive to conversations and a more natural environment. 

As students grow accustomed to online learning, reminders of pre-COVID-19 life are necessary. We might not have the school bell or bursting pipes anymore, but at least breakout rooms can bring us a sense of normalcy, replicating small-group, in-person discussions. Teachers may use breakout rooms a lot, but their facilitation of questions, discussion and socialization mean they are not overused, but valuable.