Make the Most of Breakout Rooms

One of the biggest challenges with online classes is getting students engaged and working collaboratively. Breakout rooms seem to be the answer to both engagement and collaboration issues; however, these rooms can pose a whole new world of challenges. How do you utilize your breakout rooms to optimize student group work?

I often hear feedback from both students and teachers about the lack of interaction or supervision in the rooms. To address this issue, I came up with some solutions to break out room challenges which I’m going to share.

Challenge: Teachers Can’t be Everywhere

Teachers can’t oversee the progress of all groups while spending time with one group. What happens if a question arises, and the teacher stays in a group longer? The other groups are on their own for a longer period of time. Consequently, help is not available to them and additionally they can’t hear the question or the teacher’s explanation.


  • Activities should be explained before being assigned, and written instructions should also be provided. Each group member should be assigned a specific role. This way, the learners will feel confident in completing the task.
  • Another method could be to assign a shared document, like a Google Doc, to be completed during the breakout session. This would allow the teacher to observe the work of each group in real time and add comments, even if they are in different rooms.

Challenge: Ensuring all group members can contribute

Some students report that, whether due to shyness or other issues, not everyone in the group contributes an equal amount. This can make some group members feel as if they are carrying most of the work.


  • Again, provide a role for each member of the group. Assigning roles could be an option to avoid an unfair distribution of work and also make sure no one is left out.  There are many student-centered learning techniques which discuss the importance of roles in group work. Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) is one such technique. Roles range from manager and recorder to presenter and reflector. 
  • Personally, I use the recorder’s role more than any other to improve note-taking skills, and also to record group progress which paves the way for individual and group evaluation.

Challenge: Groups take too long to complete a task

Groups don’t complete the task, or spend twice as much time as they should spend on a task.


Make your tasks meaningful. Students lose interest in the task if they don’t see any reasonable outcome. The best way to make it meaningful is to explain the “why” before they are sent to their groups, and make sure students get a chance to present the outcome of their group work to the class.

Challenge: Individual or Cultural Differences Interfere

Students don’t work well as a team due to individual or cultural differences, or use first language as a means of communication.


  • Collaborating and communicating with classmates is a skill that every student joining a class needs to learn. To make sure cultural differences are not impeding communication among group members, pick some disruptive behaviours at the beginning of the course and clarify how these actions might be disrespectful to others.

The bottom line is to have a set of rules for group work. Kindly reminding students of the importance of following the rules, might trigger the expected results. A final word: never underestimate adding a pinch of fun to any group activity.

Greetings to all colleagues and readers! I’m Azi. I teach EAP and Business Bridging Course at ICEAP Toronto, King’s College Campus. I’m also an ESL Instructor at London District Catholic School Board. After about 10 years of overseas teaching experience and degrees in Linguistics, my second master’s in TESOL from Western University brushed up my skills and knowledge in the field. Later I became a TESL Trainer both in Theory and Methodology and thrive to see new techniques and strategies to help learners. I believe in fun as the core incentive in learning a second language. I am a mom to a little princess and I mostly spend my spare time with her. I’ve moved to a fully online delivery method during the COVID-19 pandemic in both of the courses I teach, so I have a lot to share!! I am so delighted to be a part of the TESL Blog team


2 thoughts on “Make the Most of Breakout Rooms”

  1. I like the idea of picking “some disruptive behaviours at the beginning of the course and clarify how these actions might be disrespectful to others.” I agree with you, Azi, that it is important to raise cultural awareness at the very beginning of the course.

    1. Thanks a lot Mustafa for sharing your thoughts. That was a great point you brought up. Discussing culturally sensitive behaviour at the very beginning might pave the way for sure!

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