Breakout group activities during synchronous class sessions can be a great way to build community, and although they require a bit more initial setup for video class sessions than in a fully in-person classroom, once you have the basic infrastructure in place, breakout groups are quite easy to manage. In fact, in some ways the management of virtual breakout groups is easier than in-person breakout groups.
Breakout groups will soon be added as a standard feature to Google Meet. They’re already standard in Zoom. Here’s how to set up “breakout rooms” in Zoom.
When you design breakout group activities with an eye to building community, it may be helpful to start by considering the types of connections that you want to foster. Scholars of “social capital” identify two basic kinds of social capital – bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital (sometimes referred to as “strong social ties”) is found within a group or community, while bridging social capital (sometimes called “weak social ties”) refers to connections between social groups.(1) You can place students into groups according to the type of social capital you want to build among your students. If you want to foster bonding capital, it can be helpful to form breakout groups that stay the same for longer periods of time; if you want to support the development of bridging social capital, it might be valuable to take the extra trouble of assigning students to new groups for each class meeting. You can also use a combination of stable and shifting groups to support the growth of both kinds of social capital.
When it comes to helping students with marginalized identities feel welcome in your classroom, an awareness of the two types of social capital can be particularly useful. For example, some experts recommend rotating group assignments in a carefully considered way, sometimes placing students with marginalized identities together with similar students, and sometimes creating more diverse groups. This is a way to give marginalized students a feeling of support and solidarity while still promoting communication and connection between students with different backgrounds and perspectives. (2)
What’s nice about group work in virtual spaces is that, unlike in a physical classroom where students would have to go through an onerous process of moving chairs and tables around to get into groups – a process that might make your group strategies quite noticeable to alert students – your group assignment strategy may be a good deal less obvious during flex-hybrid class sessions.
You can, of course, use the same group selection strategies for asynchronous group activities, too. For asynchronous group activities that require students to connect multiple times to complete a project, please be mindful of time zones, internet connectivity, and other factors that might make it hard for some students to participate. If you know where people are and what their internet connection is like (things you should ask at the beginning of the semester), you might choose to put people in the same time zone or with limited connectivity together, discreetly altering assignments as needed to make them work for those students. You don’t have to tell students why you’re doing this.
Out-of-class group work sometimes gets a bad rap because it can create negative interpersonal dynamics that instructors have to manage. However, there are a number of studies that show that group work is worth the extra trouble on the part of the instructor because it teaches students important “soft skills” like communication, time and project management, and engaging effectively with a diverse range of perspectives. It also enables students to tackle more complex challenges and questions than they can take on individually. (3)
While nothing can completely eliminate the potential for conflict, there are many strategies that can be used in both fully in-person and flex-hybrid environments to support group success.
- Help the students build a foundation by asking them to ensure that everyone in their group understands key concepts.
- Help students establish norms, group etiquette, and establish roles.
- Explain to students how they will be graded and support them by checking in on their progress and redirecting them when necessary. (4)
- To ensure inclusion and engagement, assign students specific roles such as recorder, reporter, idea generators, fact checker, quality control, meeting coordinator, etc.
For groups in flex-hybrid classes, it’s also important to make sure that:
- Everyone in the group can access the platform chosen for communication.
- Everyone knows how to reach the other group members by email/text/other selected communication channels
- Everyone knows when group meetings are (which means that everyone must agree on which calendar system they will use). (5)
I had what I felt was a successful outcome for the second half of the spring semester.That was only true because I had focused so seriously on establishing the group as bonded and generous in their communication and feedback. I find that if I can get the students to become a tight cohort, for art critiques and production it is useful as they are driven because they know they have a compassionate and interested audience. It drives their production in the best way. I also like to give them external deadlines and in this case we all got onto google.sites at Josh’s suggestion and they (and I) learned how to put together a basic website. It was very, very empowering for them.Stella Marrs
(1) https://www.socialcapitalresearch.com/difference-bonding-bridging-social-capital/ (NB: Scholars also identify a third kind of social capital: linking social capital, which connects different levels in a power hierarchy, but this is less pertinent to a classroom situation.) This idea was popularized by Robert Putnam and has since been updated by other researchers to include a consideration of the value of bridging capital on the internet.
(2) See https://www.ideaedu.org/idea-notes-on-instruction/asked-students-to-share-ideas-and-experiences-with-others-whose-backgrounds-and-viewpoints-differ-from-their-own/ and https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/ClassClimates.
(3) See https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/benefits.html and https://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/resources/active-learning/group-work-in-class/benefits-of-group-work/
(5) A handy infographic from the CLT outlines these and other strategies for successful group work.