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Working in small groups in class vs. working in breakout groups: differences I didn’t realize were there…

In classrooms with 20 to 30 students, it’s easy to create interaction by having discussions in small groups of four to five people. I thought it would be easy to recreate this with breakout groups (operationalized as channels in Teams) but I didn’t realize a few things that – in retrospect – are kind of obvious. Here’s my list and if you read through to the end, you’ll find my (trial-and-error-based) tips:

  • Students in classrooms sit next to the students they like and are happy to cooperate with. Students appearing next to each other on the screen in Teams needn’t share such a connection at all.
  • Groups of students working in channels are in different rooms ? and…
    • Switching between the general and the group level is not straightforward. Here’s two situations where I used to count on an easy switch:
      • I like telling students ‘work on this problem’ and then keep a bird’s eye view on all the groups to determine the optimal moment to move back from the group to the general level. I found out that this strategy has no easy implementation with breakout groups.
      • I like experimenting and I sometimes formulate an assignment that is not completely self-explanatory. Based on the first reactions of the different groups I can then quickly find out where potential problems lie, raise my voice and come to a better formulation that all groups immediately take over. Again, I found out that this strategy is difficult to implement with breakout groups.
    • Monitoring the different groups becomes harder and it’s also harder for them to monitor you. Here’s two situations that work out naturally in class but not in channels:
      • In a classroom, I can easily use the gestures and intonation of the students to see which group needs help or is getting into a really exciting discussion that I can give an extra push to. With breakout groups I would first have to ‘break into’ the groups and ask them how things are going.
      • In a classroom, students can see when you’re busy but they can still indicate they’re in need of help and you can quickly signal them they’re next in line. Despite the merits of the chat function in Teams, there’s no easy split-second alternative to the relevant gestures when you’re working with breakout groups.

These differences are important and I learned about them by going wrong or going completely crazy when being summoned (repeatedly) by one group while still working with another group… The message I want to convey is not that we shouldn’t do breakout groups. Quite the contrary… We however should be aware of the differences so that we can take them into account. Here are my (trial-and-error-based) tips:

  • Think carefully about the group division and get students involved in coming up with a good rationale (see also the tips here);
  • Prepare assignments meticulously (recycle things that worked before ?) and set a time frame;
  • Schedule visits to the different groups so that they know in advance when you’re dropping by to help them out. Also make sure they know when you have to hop to the next group.

And one more thing… where it used to be enough to have assignments presented on slides in class, we should think about preparing a separate file that students can ‘take’ to their breakout group.

Bert Le Bruyn
31 augustus 2020

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