Breaking Down the Breakout Room

A discussion of the pros and cons of breakout rooms, and individual students’ experiences with them.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“All right everybody, I’m going to sort you into breakout rooms, and you can all discuss this problem. Call me in if you have any questions.”

And so the dread begins. It is time to enter a Zoom breakout room, the mini-Zooms contained within the larger Zoom meeting. The motive of this feature is to encourage more interactions between students in smaller groups, and on the surface level, this seems practical. In practice, things are different. Cameras that were already off remain off, and many of the minority that were already on fizzle out, leaving breakout rooms a sea of gray and white with the occasional disturbance of a lonely face.

To one anonymous freshman, breakout rooms feel like ghost towns. His experiences with breakout rooms have been mostly negative. “I would much rather sit in a class where the teacher is teaching,” he said. He noted that the virtual environment is a large factor in why small group work is so much more awkward on Zoom than in person. “Even if someone’s more of an extrovert, the stagnant nature of the breakout room stops them from doing anything,” he commented.

While it seems freshmen struggle with breakout rooms because of a lack of prior connection with their peers, many upperclassmen have different perspectives. “80 percent positive, 20 percent negative,” was junior Jesse Wang’s take on breakout rooms as a whole. “What’s missing about the breakout rooms is just the freedom of choice for the students because I genuinely believe discussions would be so much better if you were allowed to talk to someone you knew already in the room,” Wang said. While there now exists a feature in Zoom that allows for self-selection of your breakout room, many teachers have yet to enable it, and many don’t know that it exists. Wang chooses to keep his camera on in breakout rooms. “I guess I just do whatever I can to make it less awkward,” he said.

Senior Jillian Lin agrees with Wang’s sentiment: “One thing I’ve missed so much about in-person schooling is being able to have conversations with people I’m not as close to, and breakout rooms are a chance to interact,” she said. She acknowledges that breakout rooms aren’t perfect, but she believes that the benefits outweigh the shortcomings. “I do think there’s a sort of pressure to interact that makes things a bit awkward [...] but it’s a good opportunity to boost the social interaction we’ve all been missing,” Lin said.

While students are the ones in the breakout rooms, it is also important to consider the teachers attempting to run them. One teacher who has found particular success with this endeavor is English teacher Annie Thoms. Thoms has spent a lot of time conceptualizing her breakout rooms, as they play a large part in facilitating the collaborative and interactive atmosphere that she strives for. She is aware that breakout rooms have the potential to be unproductive and awkward, saying, “The biggest danger of breakout rooms is that they become an extension of the danger of Zoom school in general, which is that we are so totally separated from each other and it’s so easy to check out.” She combats this by traveling through the rooms in random order to ensure that cameras are on and discussion is happening.

But even that system isn’t perfect. “I wish that I could see all of the [breakout rooms] at once. [...] In the classroom, I can visually see every group at the same time, and I can choose who I go over to when. With the breakout rooms on Zoom, it’s blind,” Thoms said. “It’s much harder for me to target my assessment of where it might be useful for me to pop in.” She understands that virtual school is hard for everybody, and doesn’t hold it against students who choose to turn their cameras off. But she does have one way of encouraging discussion: “If I come into a breakout room and nobody is talking, I do yell very loud, ‘Oh no! Silent breakout room of doom!’ which is a little embarrassing for them and makes them more likely to be talking in the breakout room.”

While breakout rooms tend to pack less punch than intended, they do have their redeeming factors. They allow for interaction within the otherwise often silent virtual classroom and encourage collaboration in an environment where it ordinarily feels less natural. Perhaps it would ease awkwardness if students were able to select their own rooms, or perhaps the awkwardness of breakout rooms is simply inevitable. Until school is truly back in session, we must find a way to vanquish the “silent breakout rooms of doom,” or at the very least, to come to peace with them.