Breakout Rooms to Research Groups: Encouraging Student Engagement

September was the first seminar in our BYU/LX series to discuss and highlight the newest in experiential learning. Our topic this month was how to manage student teams, and even more importantly, how to get students effectively engaged on these teams.


Our panelists provided some excellent methods for encouraging engagement on small student teams. It was important to all of the speakers that the teams be small enough to build trust, typically with less than ten students. This makes it easier to divide the work, so each student has a set assignment or task and creates a feeling of accountability. Trust is built through clear lines of communication from the beginning, as Kirsten Novilla, a BYU student, added. Being flexible in platforms and minimizing emails allows students to communicate in ways that are familiar to them- whether it is Slack vs Discord, WhatsApp vs GroupMe, Microsoft Teams vs Google Docs- looking to students to see where they feel communication flows best and what they feel most incentivized to use makes a huge difference in accountability and engagement.

Communication was the word that our panelists kept referring back to, and as a student myself, it is easy to overlook its importance. Setting clear delegation of tasks and having consistent check-ins for progress updates makes managing and working in a team much more engaging. In research groups or other team settings, the teams that were not successful in building trust and accountability failed because of a lack of consistent updates and clear responsibilities.


Managing student teams in a group setting can be difficult. But the conversations I was involved in during our seminar made me think of another type of student team- Zoom breakout rooms. During online lectures, Zoom allows professors to place small numbers of students into a room for more personal discussion of the material or to brainstorm answers for a larger group discussion later. The problem? With the professor not in the breakout room, more often than not the call goes silent.


Professors and Zoom hosts are trying to find ways of ensuring that students discuss during breakout sessions, primarily in my classes by popping in unannounced to each room, but this disrupts conversations that are actually happening and does very little to foster trust when students feel like professors are waiting to catch them by surprise. Instead, let’s think of breakout rooms like student teams and apply the same principles of trust and communication. Spend a few minutes in your Zoom sessions connecting to students or acknowledging that online learning is affecting everyone. Putting clear tasks or prompts in the chat lets students refer back to the questions during breakouts and make sure they are on the right track. Being intentional about breakout rooms and creating trust by telling students what they should be getting out of these discussions incentivizes students to unmute and share.


The best way to encourage accountability is acknowledging students need to understand why online lectures or meetings are being done this way, or why student teams are using certain communication platforms and organization methods. Students are able to engage and thrive in these settings with these basic principles of team management.

Our next BYU/LX webinar will be held on October 9th, when we will discuss other challenges and solutions for online learning during COVID-19 and how experiential learning can still enhance education amidst a pandemic. Registration links can be found here https://experience.byu.edu/experiential-learning-summit-2020.

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