Using Zoom Breakout Rooms to Build Community in an Online Class

Well, somehow an entire semester flew by without a blog post and now we’re already a full month in to the new year! Part of me wants to apologize for not posting as frequently as I intended; however, in addition to teaching a new (to me) course, I held an administrative position as Writing Program Assistant, participated in a dissertation seminar, completed a dissertation chapter, and began my first foray into the academic job market. These were all great experiences, but sadly something had to give, and it was this blog.

I’m also excited to share that I had two publications released: a chapter in the edited collection Consumption and the Literary Cookbook (Routledge) and a co-authored course design in the Fall issue of Composition Studies. I fully intend to post about my (admittedly limited) experiences with writing/revising/submitting pieces for publication at some future point, especially what has helped me as a graduate student.

But now, the actual focus of this post…

Image of Keyboard with the Shift Key replaced by the word Strategies

This past fall, I taught Professional Communication for Engineers at my university. Not only was it my first time teaching the course, but it was also my first semester teaching entirely remotely (synchronous class held via Zoom in conjunction with a Canvas course site). As a result, I was really worried about being able to foster a sense of community in the class, since some of the ways this happens in an in-person class (e.g. students chatting with each other as they arrive) doesn’t seem to translate to a Zoom environment.

One method that I found highly effective was using Zoom breakout rooms at the beginning of class, which I referred to as Community-Building Rooms. I randomly assigned students to breakout rooms in groups of 3-5, gave them a discussion starter question (e.g. What TV show are you currently binging? Where is your favorite place to eat near campus?), and then allowed them 5 minutes to just chat with each other. I did not enter these break out rooms (instead I used this time to take attendance) and made it clear to students that they could discuss the question and/or whatever else they wanted. My hope was that these daily breakouts would give students a chance to interact with one another in a way they might normally do through before-class chatter in a physical classroom. 

I was pleasantly surprised at the results. In an anonymous end-of-semester survey, I asked students to tell me what worked (and what didn’t) in the course, particularly regarding the remote delivery. Almost universally (and totally unprompted), students specifically mentioned these breakout rooms as a highlight of the course and something that gave them much-needed human connection and a sense of community. While this activity took about 10% of each instructional period, it seems to have filled a very important need for students faced with full days of remote instruction. If you’re looking to incorporate more student interactivity this semester in your remote class, I encourage you to give this strategy a try.

Searching for other classroom activities? Here are some posts from the archives:

Start-of-Semester Activity: Introduction Letters

Classroom Activity: How Perspective Shapes Perception

In the Classroom: Last-Day-of-Class Activities

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