Saturday, July 11, 2020
Guest Post--Caution Ahead: Breakout Groups Can Fail
We are thrilled to welcome Professor Susan Smith Bakhshian of Loyola Law School Los Angeles as our guest author. Susan has taught LRW and doctrinal law for many years at Loyola, where she is a Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Bar Programs. She is the co-author of Clearing the Last Hurdle: Mapping Success on the California Bar Exam. This summer, she taught entirely online using Brightspace and Zoom. You can reach Susan at [email protected]
Caution Ahead: Breakout Groups Can Fail
Breakout rooms are great. But. Wait for it. They can fail. Break out rooms are terrific for everything from a way to let students chat and get to know each other, to in class exercises and writing assignments. And the experience is usually great.
Breakout rooms are not a substitute for physical classrooms, but they can give students a few minutes to socialize, provide variety in instruction, and accomplish learning objectives.
So when do breakout rooms go wrong? Groups can go wrong a variety of ways. While the tech can fail, which is a new problem, the other failures are nothing new. A student may decline to participate fully. Group dynamics can unravel. Disputes can arise.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Groups need clear instructions to stay on track. Using a slide in class or posting a handout before class goes a long way to making sure students understand that breakout groups are real assignments and not a class break. By posting slides before class, shy or anxious students are able to preview the group assignment and more fully participate in class.
Pop in. Video conference software simulates walking around the room. Once students realize the professor might drop in the group, they stay on track. This feature is especially helpful when I see that the random assignment has created a group of several weaker students or one with too many natural leaders. I usually go to those groups first. Even if all of the groups are doing fine without any help, I also just like to say “hello.”
Require a deliverable. If the groups know going into the exercise that a written product is due or that anyone in the group may be called on, they will stay on task better. Formal and informal deliverables both work well. Ask for each group to craft an email to the professor, require a post, or ask the group to return to the full class ready to answer a question or present their best ideas.
For those who have not tried a breakout room, an easy, but effective assignment is to have the groups make a list of best (and worst) practices for online learning. They have great tips for each other ranging from natural lighting solutions to how to use the “hide my video” feature to get more comfortable being on video. This assignment works as an ice-breaker in an early class or anytime you want to cover professionalism. As attorneys, they will need to be proficient at using video conferencing software, even after a return to more live interaction. A quick mention that job interviews may be online gets everyone in the group more interested in discussing best practices.
Bottom line, breakout groups are flexible and effective in online teaching.