With Contributions from 2020-2021 CITLS Student Fellows: Anna DeVault '21, Sharon Engel '22, Hamna Younas '22

student looking at their laptop with the zoom screen


The purpose of this resource is to share student perspectives on the effective usage of online breakout rooms. These recommendations were developed in partnership with CITLS Student Fellows, who drew from their classroom observations during the Fall 2020 Inclusive Instructors Academy as well as their own experiences as students in courses taught online.

Overview of Community of Inquiry Model

One model that can apply to the usage of breakout rooms is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Fiock, 2020). This framework includes three elements known as presences: cognitive presence, or the extent to which learners can construct knowledge and develop new understandings (Swan and Ice, 2010); social presence, or learners’ affect, which encompasses the ability of students to feel connected with peers; and teaching presence, which includes the “design, facilitation, and direction” (Anderson et al., 2001) of the other two presences (Castellano-Reyes, 2020), and entails the role of the instructor on tasks associated with managing and leading a course, such as designing materials and activities, conducting and leading discussions, summarizing key points, and handling the direction of the course and its participants. Each of these presences works interconnectedly and can contribute to student success in an online learning environment. In courses that meet over video conferencing, instructors can use breakout room spaces to promote cognitive and social presence by building students’ knowledge of the subject matter and connections with  each other in smaller groups.

Zoom and the Breakout Room Function

The breakout room is a function in Zoom that allows the host to group participants into smaller rooms during the same call or session. The feature is usually used to recreate small group work during a class session. Students in breakout rooms can work with their peers in small groups, talk to each other, share their screen, and “connect” with fewer classmates. Additionally, similar to the ways in which a professor might circulate around groups in a physical classroom, the host can visit breakout rooms to check in on students, answer questions, and make sure that everyone is engaged. 

While breakout rooms provide a chance to emulate the kind of group work that fosters social and cognitive presence, sometimes they can produce the opposite effect: muted faces on the screen doing work individually and not really “connecting” with each other. 

CITLS Student Fellows have proposed recommendations for group composition, instructions, and faculty interaction while using breakout rooms. The recommendations leverage teaching presence and enhance the breakout room experience during online instruction.

Group Composition

When determining how to assign students to breakout rooms, consider the following: 

  • Contemplate the goals of the breakout session:
    • If the goal is to encourage student-to-student connections at the beginning of the semester, it’s a good idea to ask students to introduce or re-introduce themselves to their group members the first few times they are assigned to randomized rooms. For example, ask students to first share their names, pronouns, majors, and one other thing about themselves (e.g. an item they can’t live without, their favorite food, their favorite artist, etc).
    • If the goal of the breakout group is to cement a sense of group belonging and collaboration, then stable groups where students work with the same peers for a period of several weeks might be more desirable. This reduces the awkward moment of being unfamiliar with the group members and prompts the students to start working on the task(s) faster and with more ease.
  • Consider periodically allowing students to choose the members of their breakout room. However, careful implementation is important so that students are not left out. For example, consider allowing students to confidentially submit preferences to be grouped with other students for breakout sessions where they have choice, and use this information to create breakout rooms. For some courses students may not know each other well enough so this may be less relevant.

Breakout Room Instructions

In general, giving students direction during breakout room sessions is important for them to be able to meet the goals of the activity. 

  • Give clear and task-oriented instructions on what students should be doing during the breakout session, including a step-by-step breakdown of activities if necessary. 
  • Use shared spaces such as Google Docs, Slides, Jamboards, where students can collaborate and produce work.
  • Allow students to share their screen during their breakout sessions.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities for students during the breakout session. For example, one student could be in charge of taking notes and reporting back what the group discussed to the main session. The reporter role can be assigned prior to the breakout session, during the breakout session (using the broadcast to all rooms function), or self-selected by the team.
  • For group projects that will take several sessions to complete or time outside of class:
    • Define even clearer roles for each student. For example, one student can be in charge of presentation and slides, another one of proofreading and editing, and another one of resources. 
    • Open channels for students to provide feedback on the experience of working with that particular group, such as peer feedback forms and group evaluations.
    • Allow students to switch groups if needed. For instance, a stable group can last 3 weeks, after which period students could be placed in new stable groups. 

Faculty Interaction during Breakout Sessions

Consider whether and how to interact with students during the breakout sessions. 

  • Ahead of time make decisions around whether or not it is important to enter breakout rooms depending on the goals of the activity as well as whether students will be in need of more guidance.
  • Let students know in advance that you might enter the breakout rooms and why. Joining without giving prior notice can feel invasive and disruptive of the breakout group dynamic.
  • When  joining a breakout room, keep the camera and microphone on (i.e. don’t “sneak in”).
  • Encourage students to use the “call host” function if they have a question or comment. This way, they will be inviting you to join their room, thereby minimizing the disruption of a surprise join. 
  • Consider not joining breakout sessions if the task is short.

Closing the Breakout Rooms

Closing the breakout session without a warning can feel abrupt and interrupt students mid-work, even mid-sentence.

  • Provide a clear timeline for the duration of the breakout session.
  • Announce how much time is left using the “broadcast message to all” feature.
  • Consider asking students whether they would like to have more time to complete the task prior to returning to the main room by using the poll feature.


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conference context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.

Castellanos-Reyes, D. (2020). 20 Years of the Community of Inquiry Framework. Tech Trends, 64, 557-560.

Fiock, H. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 21(1), 134-152.

Swan, K., & Ice, P. (2010). The Community of Inquiry Framework Ten Years Later: Introduction to the Special Issue. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2), 1-4.


Izenberg, I. Using Breakout Rooms with Less Stress and Better Results. Faculty Focus. 10 July 2020.

Lowe, D. Improving Breakout Room Discussions in Online Teaching by Using Collaborative Documents. Faculty Focus, 10 August 2020.