Should you use breakout rooms, even if you know people will drop off your presentation?

The short answer is: yes.

The longer answer is: I honestly didn’t even know that dropping off a virtual session because the presenter uses breakout rooms was a thing. But several months ago I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and noticed that someone in higher ed posted a question about whether people stayed on their virtual meetings if a facilitator used breakout rooms.

I scoffed at the post and quickly clicked on the comments. I was sure I’d find a sea of responses from people saying that breakout rooms were the best and most engaging part of a virtual session.

I did not see any comments to this effect.

I was aghast to see comments to the effect of: “Look, I’m working from home. I have laundry to do and kids to help with schoolwork. So if someone puts me into a breakout room, I drop off.”

I rolled my eyes. Higher ed. Hmph.

Mockingly, I posted part of this Twitter thread on our internal Slack channel at work and basically said: Would you get a load of this?

My colleague Lauren quickly replied and said: “She’s right, people drop off during breakout sessions. It’s not just higher ed. Remember the virtual session we did a few weeks ago? Remember how we used breakout rooms? We lost about 50% of our attendees when we launched the breakout rooms!”

WHAT?!?!

How did I miss this? Suddenly I began to doubt the effectiveness of my instructional design. Then something else happened that led me to double down on my conviction that breakout rooms should indeed be a commonly used part of my virtual instructional design kit.

“The only time I really participate is when I’m in breakout rooms.”

This was a quote from my somewhat introverted fourth grader who has been in virtual school since last March.

Last week I was speaking with someone that attended a recent virtual training session who told me that the concepts I was teaching didn’t quite click with her until she had a chance to talk them through with a small group during an exercise in breakout rooms.

The fact is that people will attend web-based sessions for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there are a number of people who treat them a bit like podcasts. They’ll log on, listen and try to pick up a few nuggets while folding laundry and generally keeping their house in order during this pandemic. That’s fine. If they’re able to take away some nuggets and then click the “End Meeting” button when they’ve been placed into a breakout room, then good for them. And, it’s never the audience we should be designing learning experiences for.

Small group discussions in breakout rooms offer participants an opportunity to process and discuss in a safe space, to try out the material you’ve presented and to bounce ideas around in terms of how they might use your content in the real world. Breakout rooms are often the only space for “praxis” during a virtual session. In her book Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, Jane Vella defines praxis as action with reflection. For most people, it’s not just enough to learn about something or even to practice using it… they need to reflect, process and discuss key concepts so that they can truly identify how these concepts can be helpful to them.

Don’t worry too much about people dropping off your next virtual session simply because you’ve put them into a breakout room. Perhaps they’ve already taken what they needed from your session. As for those who stick around, they’ll be the ones who will thank you for the opportunity to truly be able to do something new or different or better as a result of your session.

12 thoughts on “Should you use breakout rooms, even if you know people will drop off your presentation?

  1. I am a high school teacher that currently uses Teams daily in order to teach virtual classes. I have never used breakout rooms in my own classroom however I have had to use them during professional development trainings. In the training, the instructor used them as a way to foster intimate conversations about specific content. This was beneficial for us as learners because a virtual training with 30+ people can get overwhelming when everyone is trying to contribute to the conversation. I love the idea of using these breakout rooms in a high school classroom, however I am skeptical because they are teenagers after all and I cannot supervise in every break out room. I can barely get students to respond to me using the chat option, so expecting my students to talk to each other in a breakout room seems out of the question.
    If I was going to implement break out rooms in my curriculum there are a few things I would have to do to ensure their success. I would I have to build value in the idea of the break-out rooms. In my classroom this would look like a class discussion in which we talk about why break out rooms are beneficial and what the students have to gain from participating in them. I would even have them brainstorm and discuss ways in which these break out rooms would benefit them in other settings such as group projects or meeting other students around the world. For high school students, they need to understand the expectation or goal before engaging in the task. If the students know exactly why they are participating, they can execute the task much more efficiently. As a teacher I would have to make their participation worth something to them which means giving them points for completion of the task. I believe that after building value, clearly defining expectations and making participation a requirement, I would have success using this tool in my classroom. Thank you for the insightful post!

  2. I have had some people share that when they are in small breakout sessions, or multiple breakout sessions, that their anxiety kicks in. Not true for all that drop off, but something to consider and not take it personally. It’s just like those that go to the bathroom when there are in person small groups. Some people can process in large groups, but the anxiety of small groups is too overwhelming.

  3. I also didn’t know this was a thing! As a trainer and facilitator of learning, I focus first on the participants who come to engage and learn. To me that usually includes well-designed and instructed breakouts. Plus, it’s such a bonus when you can hook someone who isn’t engaging (or plans to drop off) and they actually stay and have their own ah ha moment in the breakout room (so energizing)! But nonetheless, always plan and prepare for those who are hungry to engage and learn – anything short wouldn’t seem right to me. Everyone makes their own choices – don’t take it personally if they drop; instead focus on those you’ve helped! Thanks Brian!

  4. I totally agree with this article. Don’t take it personal. In any training or meeting, I fall back on a couple of Open Space principles which state, “who ever shows up are the right people” and “whatever happens is the only thing that could’ve”. It takes the pressure off of having to be in control of others behaviors and outcomes. Oh yeah, and one of the other things I frame training/meetings with is the Law of Two Feet. “The Law of Two Feet means you take responsibility for what you care about — standing up for that and using your own two feet to move to whatever place you can best contribute and/or learn.” If you got what you came for or are not getting what you came for, use your feet.

  5. I also did not know this was a thing! We use breakout rooms all the time for reflection and discussion with K-12 educators; most of them tell us it’s the best part of class. Structured tasks can help.

    • It’s been my experience that the activity people give me the most feedback on is the breakout rooms… it’s where most people say they get their ah-ha moments – when they can play around with the concepts with other participants.

  6. As a trainer, I see the benefits of breakout rooms. I have no problem with being in front of people and talking so I can’t explain it but as a participant in a training, breakout rooms freak me out and I sadly admit that I am one who drops out when placed in a breakout room.

    • My first reaction is to give you the stink eye! But my next, more professional reaction is to ask: what would happen if you stayed when you’re placed into a breakout room?

  7. I think some people just want to listen and not participate. Too bad really. I enjoy engaging in conversation about what we are learning. Break out rooms are a great tool and should be used with a clear goal. I say keep it in!!!

    • I’m with you. And you have a very good point – there should be a clear goal whenever we’re putting people into breakout rooms… with clear instructions (especially since most platforms don’t allow participants to see your slide deck once they’ve been put into a breakout room).

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