Improve your student engagement with breakout discussions

How can we intellectually stretch the students without causing too much pain?

Written by Rich Kingsford

Which will engage your students more: class-wide discussions or 2-3 person breakout discussions?  Of course it depends on the circumstances, but I have absolutely loved the increased engagement I’ve witnessed by giving students one to seven discussion topics, usually open-ended questions, and then turning them loose.  I teach a series of computer science classes and business classes, so most of the concepts are best learned through case studies and scenario application.  We tend to do less memorization and test taking and more projects. 

Of course class wide discussions are probably far more comfortable for most teachers and students; after all, 80% of the students can pretend to be paying attention while the other 20% carry most of the conversational and collective thinking burden.  Class wide discussions might also be more interesting for the instructor, because she can explore the more interesting areas.  

But we don’t go to class to be comfortable… How can we intellectually stretch the students without causing too much pain?  (How much pain is too much pain anyway?  And what are the risks of crossing that line?) I would argue that peer-to-peer discussions in small groups quickly become comfortable, right after the student learns the basics of making an argument, develops a healthy sense of curiosity, practices a little human decency (politeness), and builds a tiny bit of courage. As for the teachers, if you’ve never done a breakout session before, an experiment like this is low risk and very inexpensive, from a time perspective.

I was first introduced to breakout discussions in a negotiations class.  My instructor shared fewer than five concepts the entire semester and instead gave us challenges and then asked us to pair up and roleplay through the scenario, each with a different role.  It was a little uncomfortable, at first, but we learned how to get through it quickly and efficiently.  

For most of my subjects, the structured scenarios and roles in my negotiations class seemed too heavy – I simply list a set of questions and ask the students to break out and then reconvene as a class in 20 minutes. 

“What about virtual classes where all the students are remote?”

  • Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Discord, Google Hangouts, and even Skype make putting one call on hold while you meet on another call very easy.  Sometimes the students will IM me a quick question.  Works great.

“Can’t the students just pretend they’re meeting and discussing?”

  • Some will try to do this, yes.  Rather than shooting down the entire idea, I suggest experimenting with a control mechanism.  
  • One control mechanism I often use is requiring one or more students to write out some or all of their arguments. Sometimes I ask the students to meet asynchronously, not vocally, and then copy and paste their text discussion on our class collaboration tool (e.g. Trello, Facebook Workplace, Canvas, or Quora).
  • Another control mechanism I use is to randomly call on students and ask what their team discussed.  Occasionally a student will go AWOL, in which case I dock a few participation points. 

“Aren’t breakout discussions higher maintenance and therefore more work for me, the instructor?”

  • Nope – they’re a fraction of the work.  I often use the isolation time to catch up on email or improve the quality of my personalized feedback on a project or assignment.
  • Occasionally I will have an idea on how to improve the discussibility or insight of a question.  Modern discussion tools make it very easy to update my discussion templates.  

How have you used breakout discussions or class discussions in your courses?  (Instructor or student comments are welcome!)

Are there any discussion-based challenges you’ve faced in your remote or face-to-face classes?  Asynchronous or synchronous?

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