Breakout rooms fail to simulate personal discussion

Picture this: You are sitting at your computer and listening to your teacher’s lesson for the day. You’re only half-listening until you hear the words: “I am going to put you guys into breakout rooms.” Ideally, you would be excited to talk with your peers about an assigned topic, but instead you are panicking about who is in your group. This brings up the controversial topic of whether or not breakout rooms are really that effective.

During in-person school, many students, including myself, actually enjoyed group discussions in class because it allowed students to casually participate and interact with their classmates. Group discussions allow students to voice their opinions. Most of the time, students are forced to sit at their desk and just listen to their teacher lecture, but group discussions allow students to say what they want about the topic. Simultaneously, students can practice public speaking in front of a smaller group of people as well.

As schools transition into distance learning, group discussions and team projects have become more difficult to complete. Consequently, teachers commonly resort to breakout rooms on Zoom to replicate the idea of these group discussions. But these breakout rooms have their downsides.

Often, students end up being put in a breakout room just to drown in an awkward silence, staring at each other on their screen. When put into a breakout room, many students are shy and feel intimidated to be the first to speak up, especially if they do not know their classmates in the breakout room. In my English class, my teacher frequently uses breakout rooms as a way to discuss what we think of the material that we are assigned to read. Sure, there are times when everyone collaborates and discusses the reading. However, more often than not, my entire group will sit in front of their screen and go on their phone instead. As a result of this silence, we are unable to fulfill the task given to us by our teacher. 

I know for a fact that I am not the only one who experiences this. Social media is flooded with posts of students showing how awkward and ineffective their breakout rooms are because of the silence that occupies their discussion time and the lack of engagement shown by students. These cons are something that many teachers may not realize because they do not stay in one breakout room the entire time given. 

Despite the downsides of breakout rooms, there are many ways students can utilize them to their advantage. For example, students can share screens which can be beneficial when asking a specific question or practicing group presentations. Despite the awkwardness that breakout rooms may bring, when used accordingly, they can actually be used to the student’s gain.

Group discussions are important because they allow students to converse with one another about the given task. They not only give you a chance to talk amongst your peers about something you do not understand, but they also help practice public speaking skills as well. While ways to have these discussions online are limited, breakout rooms are generally the only tool that teachers can use to implement these group discussions. Many students can agree when it is said that breakout rooms are not the same as an in-person conversation. 

When split into breakout rooms, students usually do not get a say in who is in their group. This is one of the contributing factors of why breakout rooms often result in awkward silence instead of engaging conversations. As a result, students are unable to use these breakout rooms to their advantage, which evidently shows how breakout rooms will never be the exact same as real life group discussions, and are often more harmful than they are helpful.

By Freda Lei, In-depth editor
Editorial cartoon by Remy Wong