Breakout Rooms for the Socially Starved and the Socially Awkward

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Remember what it was like to go to in-person classes? Do you remember what it was like being squished close together in the Forum or Thomas 100? Remember what it was like making a new friend on the first day of class? Remember being able to turn around and introduce yourself to the people sitting behind you? Do you remember the hilarious short-lived conversations whispered deviously between lecture slides? Remember darting to your favorite seat before someone else claimed it? Do you remember how amazing it is to be in a classroom surrounded by hundreds of other students? VALLEY does.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way colleges and universities around the nation must deliver course material, and as a result, the large lecture hall experience has been swiftly eliminated for the time being. In its place, professors and organizations have turned to (you guessed it) breakout rooms.

Breakout rooms are awkward. They can be frustrating. There can be technical difficulties. Being thrown into a separate Zoom room with other students (who you’ve likely never met before) can be completely counterproductive and terribly bleak if no one chooses to participate. However, VALLEY urges you to reconsider your breakout room approach. Here’s why.

While the decision to take classes remotely and in reduced capacities was made in the best interest of public health, college students are faced with a new challenge: creating and maintaining healthy social relationships in a highly virtual environment.

According to Penn State News, 19% of classes are being delivered fully in person this semester while an additional 28% of courses are being delivered in the mix mode format. Based on these statistics, 53% of all classes are being delivered entirely online this semester (synchronously or asynchronously).

However, when one considers the mixed mode format, in reality 81% of all courses this semester will have some online component. Combined with the fact that many students elect to mute their mics and leave their cameras turned off during Zoom lectures and that asynchronous classes have no face-to-face instruction, the opportunities to interact with other students and meet new people in a virtual world are incredibly limited. As a result, breakout rooms can be the only main source of social interaction for many students this semester.

Next time a professor sends you into a breakout room, try out these steps to improve your breakout room dynamic.

Turn on your Camera and Unmute your Mic

While it seems very simple, the best way to establish connections with other students is when they can see and hear you. It can be daunting to look at and speak to a computer screen full of empty boxes, so make sure to turn on your camera first. If other students in your Zoom room haven’t turned on their cameras yet, politely ask them to do so. Try saying something like this: “If everyone could turn on their cameras, that would be great!” or “I would love to see everyone, could you guys turn on your cameras please?”

Start the Conversation. Say Hi.

Sometimes, silence can be the biggest deterrent of starting a productive conversation, so VALLEY recommends taking initiative to get the ball rolling. If no one has said anything yet, definitely do! Be confident. Start by saying “hello” and ask how everyone in your Zoom room is doing.

Introduce Yourself

If you are assigned to a breakout room with students you haven’t met before, introduce yourself and ask everyone to do the same. It’ll be easier to conduct conversation and get work done if you know everyone by name.

Find Common Ground

If your professor has assigned a specific task to your breakout room, definitely prioritize your work. However, it could be beneficial to just talk with your groupmates for a minute or two, so find some common ground! You never know who you’re going to meet. Ask where people are calling in from. Ask them how their weekend was or if they have plans for the weekend. Give someone a compliment, talk about Penn State football coming back, or anything else that you’re interested in. Who knows? You might make a new friend in the process.

Complete the Task

After introductions and establishing some common ground with your new breakout roommates, complete your assigned task. Usually professors will send students into breakout rooms to work on a practice problem or discuss a certain topic, so make sure you and your group are actively working to get the assignment done.

As a rule of thumb, make sure to screenshot or take a picture of the problem or prompt before entering the breakout room. This way, everyone will know exactly what needs to be done.

To transition from friendly conversation to productive conversation, take initiative and start by reading the assigned problem or prompt. Ask your groupmates questions about their opinion or thoughts on a particular approach. Assign one of your group members to take notes and report answers back to the class. If you need clarification, speak up and ask for help.

While breakout rooms can never replace the large lecture hall experience, they can be one of the only shreds of a “normal” classroom environment left, so try and make the most of them! Online classes and learning in a virtual world can be socially isolating for many students this year, so next time your professor sends you into a breakout room, try a change in perspective. Keep these simple steps in mind to improve your breakout room dynamic.


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