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Remote Teaching Tips: Improving Breakout Groups

In large lecture halls or intimate classrooms, college instructors have traditionally broken students into small groups to collaborate. But in the move to remote learning, using this time-tested practice has hit some bumps along the road. Use the following tips to improve breakout groups when you teach online.

  1. Assign students to learning groups of four to five at the beginning of the semester. Allow students to determine how they will reach one another to work together. Alternatively, specify which app you would prefer they use. Have students work in these groups for the entire term, so that anytime groupwork is assigned, they already have a communication channel in place.
  2. Prepare students for group work sessions. Make sure you have laid the groundwork to complete the assigned group work. For example, if the groups are analyzing a poorly written document, they must first understand the characteristics of a well-written document.
  3. Help avoid student confusion by clarifying the purpose of the group session. Remote learning requires more focus than face-to-face, so provide students with clear written and oral instructions. One of the ways to make sure students understand what they are supposed to do during a breakout session is to first explain the outcome of the task to the entire class and then pose the question,Can you each write down the purpose of this task?
  4. Prepare clear instructions for the group work task. Provide students with a written explanation on the course website or in Google Docs that includes an introduction or background (similar to what has been discussed in class synchronously) and specific tasks or discussion questions the group must complete.
  5. Inform students about grading. Tell the class whether the teamwork will be graded individually, as a group, or as homework, while also informing them of when (or whether) it is due at a later date.
  6. Give groups the right amount of time to complete the discussion or task. This is no mean feat. Groups work at different paces, but the death knell to online teamwork is for students to either scurry to finish because not enough time is allotted, or because they have finished and are twiddling their thumbs until the class comes together again.
  7. Monitor groups’ progress. Check in with the groups as you would if you were in a classroom. Many course management systems have this function built in, or, you may prefer using Slack of MS Teams. Similarly, if you assign students to work collaboratively on a document you’ve created in Google Docs, you can look at what the students have written by opening the shared document.
  8. Prepare yourself for the technological side of remote group work. Be sure you understand how to use Zoom’s screen sharing, group messaging, and whiteboard functions. Importantly, learn how to secure your Zoom session from Zoom-bombing. Set a new password for each meeting and use the waiting room feature.

Perhaps the best benefit of remote groupwork is that students have time to talk to one another while learning. Such moments can build bonds and connections that enhance their education during these difficult times.