Group work is crucial in the learning process. SIOP® Feature 17, “Use group configurations that support language and content objectives of the lesson” highlights the importance of small group learning. “To maximize achievement, a balance of teacher presentation and productive group work by students is necessary for engaging learners” (Echevarría et al., 2013, p. 153).
Though many of us are still learning remotely or adjusting to hybrid schedules, effective small group learning can still exist even when students are not physically present in one classroom.
Breakout room features in the video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams provide the virtual space for students to collaborate, discuss, and process new content, as well as allowing educators to differentiate instruction and provide more voice and choice in their learning.
Here are 5 tips to help make your virtual small group time successful and meaningful.
1. Assign specific group roles.
Collaboration skills need to be taught, modeled, and practiced. And this skill is absolutely necessary while collaborating remotely. Assign clear, focused, measurable roles to each student and even do a role play on how to carry on a small group conversation as a whole class. There will be no more awkward silence in the breakout rooms, the group members will learn to hold each other accountable, and students will pay closer attention to the group tasks.
2. Design a shared task where students can show their collaborative learning.
A shared Google Doc, Slide, or Jamboard is a great virtual space to showcase students’ collaborative work. This can be a simple group note-taking document, collaborative paragraph, or color-coded group task. Here is an example Jamboard discussion placemat activity.
- After reading a text, the teacher poses a discussion question.
- Each student writes their initial response on a sticky note on space #1.
- Students take turns sharing their initial responses. Using scaffolds like question/sentence starters, students will talk back and forth, ask questions, and add to each other’s comments.
- After the discussion, students write how their initial idea changed on space #2.
- Finally, students collaboratively write a one-sentence summary synthesizing everyone’s input.
3. Provide formative assessment checks for feedback and accountability.
Reflection is crucial when learning a new skill. I encourage my students to think and peer evaluate their virtual group work experience using this Google Form exit slip after every breakout room session. The survey data helps me to identify students who may need additional support as well as helping my students reflect on their teamwork and set new goals.
4. Keep the same grouping for a while with changed roles.
Successful virtual collaboration doesn’t occur overnight. Let your students learn to collaborate by reflecting, setting new goals, and trying again using a different strategy. Instead of randomly assigning new groups for each class, keep the same grouping for a few weeks. Give them the freedom to change roles. You’ll be amazed to see how this process brings out each student’s natural strengths!
5. Teach students how to ask for help.
As a class, decide on a help signal. It can be as simple as pressing the “Ask for Help” button in Zoom or in Google Meet Enterprise. I’ve also had great success by creating different Google Meets and using them as breakout rooms. In this way, you can keep multiple “breakout rooms” open on your screen and monitor them using Chrome extensions Mute Tab and Tab Resize. Since I can virtually “see” all my breakout rooms this way, the help signal of my class can be to turn on their cameras and wave. (Click to see my tutorial) Other help signals I’ve seen teachers use are adding a bright pink sticky note in the shared Jamboard with the word “help” or changing the shared Google Slide backdrop color to red.
My last BONUS tip is to let go of control. There used to be a natural fear in me that prevented me from fully taking advantage of the breakout rooms. But let go of that fear. Be a facilitator and empower your students to drive their learning. Let your learners take the wheel, and trust me, they will blow your mind!
About the author: Esther Park is a ENL/ELA teacher with 15 years of experience teaching high school English language learners. She now works as an instructional designer and learning experience developer in Northern Virginia creating innovative and engaging elearning activities and course content for K-12 and adult learners. Esther earned her B.A. from the University of California Irvine, and an M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Biola University.
Echevarría, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® Model. (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.