‘Move fast and break things’ – Breakouts before breakout rooms: a wish list and lessons learned

I decided to experiment with breakout rooms in Teams some weeks ago, in mid-October 2020.  It was clear that large group tutorials would not be the right forum for the activity we planned – short, individual presentations.  The official Teams release of breakout rooms was not available yet, so we had to improvise and find a way to give the students a comfortable learning environment.  We learned about the advantages and drawbacks of our approach and developed a wish list for future breakout room systems.

The module was Personal and Professional Development 2, 15 credits of second year learning pursued by all 300 students in the Marketing, Events and Tourism Department of the Faculty of Business.  The module is being delivered completely online this term, with recorded videos in Moodle, and live tutorials delivered to groups of about 20 students.  The main aim of the module is to encourage students to recognise and develop their own professional identity, and to get into the habit of continuous reflection and professional development. 

This involves affective as well as functional learning.  Most students underestimate their skills and abilities, and they find it difficult to ‘translate’ their academic learning and skills into a professional context.  They need to learn to use a new vocabulary to self-describe.  Confidence is vital.  Students have to work quickly in the first two years of University study as they transition first from secondary or further education to higher, then secondly face the transition from education to the workplace.   These changes take place in the wider context of their whole transition to adulthood and can be both traumatic and revelatory for them.

The students’ task – a formative assessment – was to develop and deliver a short ‘elevator pitch’.  An elevator pitch is the kind of self-introduction you would give If you were ever stuck in a lift with, say, Richard Branson, and wanted him to give you a job.

The elevator pitch is important.  In less than one minute a person makes that first impression and says who they are and what they do, in a way that is likely to encourage discussion and networking.  By developing a short self-description, the person distils their professional identity down to a few words. 

An elevator pitch can be painful even if you are only moderately shy.  As a fairly brazen 61-year-old academic, I know this because I made my own elevator pitch for the students to get their teeth into and criticise.  Stumbling over my words, camera at an angle, shuffling pieces of paper as I read out my pitch, I felt very nervous.  I hope that my students picked up on this and recognised that nerves don’t have to matter if you prepare well and do the right things.

The content of the pitch built on learning developed and discussed in previous weeks’ classes: self-identifying transferrable skills, recognising progress since their first year and a quiz on energising strengths all supported self-awareness and confidence.  All students had the opportunity to share and discuss in these early classes, choosing to participate or not.  The elevator pitch, however, was compulsory and a first step towards deliberately externalising their professional self-image. 

We wanted our students to practice delivering their carefully drafted elevator pitches in a safe environment where they would not feel threatened or embarrassed.  Normally, in the face to face environment, they can do this in small groups, but our Teams tutorials did not at this time offer breakout rooms. 

The students might as well have been sitting in a vast open space as far as they were concerned – no doors, no windows, and anyone venturing out into the unknown by turning on their camera and unmuting their microphone was immediately exposed and felt judged by the sea of round faces and initials.  This didn’t seem to be the right, safe environment to get them started in.  So, I just set up extra meetings, distributed and tested the links with my co-tutors, and – to an extent – hoped for the best.

How did it work?

We gave the students two tutorial weeks of preparation for this small, but rather challenging activity.  We addressed the principles in a lecture, and shared examples.  We gave them a detailed lecture on the technicalities of recording an elevator pitch for online delivery, and briefed them on the assessment criteria.  In the previous week’s tutorial, students were briefed to prepare by drafting an elevator pitch – as they would be asked to practice delivering the pitch in small groups.

Just before the tutorial activity, we shared my elevator pitch and asked students to criticise it and mark it using the assessment criteria provided.  The students participated in this verbally and in the chat thread – I learned a lot!  We then gave them the following briefing:

  1. They would be randomly assigned to small groups and given a link to a Teams room.  Following the participation list, I typed the names of the students into chat along with the link.
  2. They were briefed again that the tutorial activity was to take turns to practice their draft elevator pitch – partners were to provide constructive feedback according to the assessment criteria, as we had practiced that day.  (Students who had not prepared for this activity were encouraged to do some quick thinking, scribble some ideas down and improvise.)
  3. The closing activity was for the groups to develop a list of 3 Top Tips for a good elevator pitch, to share with the whole group as we summarised the learning.
  4. We asked the students to return to the main meeting room at a particular time.

During the tutorial activity, as the rooms opened, I visited each group to check that they knew what they were doing, and put the time to return in the chat thread.   I counted myself lucky that out of 20 students, 18 returned!

After the activity, feedback was good from both the students and my colleagues.  The improvised breakout rooms worked as a comfortable learning environment and the students are very confident with their elevator pitch assessments now.  Student feedback was positive.  They commented that they felt more relaxed, confident, able to speak and to get to know their peers than they did in the larger group.  Some even turned their cameras on.  The elevator pitch became a focus for social activity as well as individual identity development.

My opinion of breakout rooms – lessons learned:

  • Getting students into small groups really helps them to interact more naturally online.   Our improvised breakout rooms, in the absence of the ‘real’ ones we have now, were a little bit tech heavy and clunky, but the students really appreciated the ‘warmer’ feel and the opportunity to talk to each other.
  • The ‘broadcast’ function in the actual breakouts will be amazingly helpful in communicating with all the students simultaneously.  It took a lot of management to communicate with students in each of my improvised rooms.
  • Time went incredibly quickly.  The process of moving from one room to the next was a bit clunky for both students and tutors.
  • I know my students and they are a confident bunch who easily grasped what they had to do.  If I were working with ‘new’ students I would need to check understanding more rigorously before releasing them into small groups, and perhaps even break the activity down step by step.
  • My students knew each other and were happy to collaborate.  Lecturers must judge the characteristics of their own groups carefully and provide ice breakers if necessary.
  • I did not get much time to interact with each of the small groups; setting the groups up ate up my time.  However, only one student said that they had wanted feedback from me on their pitch, and the students seemed to want to get on in their private groups without me pushing in.
  • In breakout rooms, there is no wider interaction between each of the groups as in face-to-face tutorials.  Cross fertilisation comes at the very end, rather than throughout.  Tutors need to structure a plenary activity for the whole group at the end of the breakouts.
  • Managing groupwork in breakouts provides less opportunity to see and hear what the students are doing in each of the groups.  Online breakout room activities need to be very clearly structured because at the time of doing this activity the technology did not support you in easily monitoring every room simultaneously.

And a wish list:

  • I feel that the process of allocating students to rooms is rather tech-heavy and needs to be more intuitive, with the option of offering students control of which small group they join. 
  • I would like to be able to see all my groups on one screen (in a ‘divided gallery’ view) and to be able to toggle sound on/sound off to communicate with and between groups, facilitate intra group chat, and replicate the classroom. 
  • It would also be helpful to have an automatic countdown timer.

Overall, having breakout rooms available seems like a huge step forward for me, my colleagues and my students as it brings the possibility of close interaction to the online world.  I’m looking forward to trying them out more and more as the year progresses.

Finally, I’m enjoying my experience of online learning this year.  Through our collective efforts, I feel we are gradually outgrowing the traditional lecture-tutorial breakdown.  We are still learning how to make the technology support our pedagogy, and many of us do regret the loss of face to face communication and the instinctive teaching responses we can make to sensory information.  However, in coping with this curtailment of eye-to-eye contact and body language, we have to learn to break down and structure our learning to a granular level, constructing learning more sensitively across functional, academic and affective domains and focussing even more on student need and diversity. 

Face to face and online learning both have their own limitations and strengths; by stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new approaches online we continue to learn how to provide the right blend to optimise learning.  In this way, I hope we can together find new ways of continuing to provide our students with strong support and enhance their learning and employability.

Elizabeth Booth

Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management

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  1. Really useful Elizabeth – getting to grips with breakout rooms is on my New Year’s resolution list and this has helped a lot! Thank you for posting.

  2. This is a really interesting post, thank you! I wasn’t brave enough to set up breakout rooms using a workaround before the new functionality was there, but I did manage to use them for my last few weeks of teaching in term 1. I found an additional benefit was that once students had tried out turning their cameras on in breakout rooms, they were then much more likely to keep them on in the main sessions – improving the experience of teaching online immensely.

    I think the suggestion of a structured plenary session after breakout rooms is very helpful.

  3. Thank you both for your responses – let me know if I can help you with anything …


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