Tips on using breakout rooms for group exercises during live online training sessions

Things I've leant along the way about this subject for anyone else doing similar work
Tips on using breakout rooms for group exercises during live online training sessions

The current covid-19 situation aside, online training has been increasing in popularity for a while now within the conservation sector as a way of providing a cheaper and more accessible way of learning and teaching. One popular approach to online training is having all trainees and trainers together in a live video call, enabling everyone to chat in real-time. A benefit of this is that it enables trainees to work together to complete tasks and activities set by the trainer. However, when group sizes are large, this can become difficult, with many trainees not having a chance to speak at all. One of the best ways to overcome these issues is by using breakout rooms - splitting the trainees into smaller subgroups, where they can chat amongst themselves to complete the task set by the trainer [1]. 

Breakout rooms, however, are not without their own challenges [1]. For example, it can be a challenge to design exercises that work well in breakout rooms. It can be a challenge to know what trainees are experiencing once they are in the breakout rooms. Are they experimenting with different Zoom backgrounds, are they sitting around in awkward silence because no one quite knows what to do, or are they steaming through the exercise and learning exactly what was intended? For the trainer, it is different to group work in the classroom when you can walk around and chat to people, you can read their body language and you can see if people are on their phones or staring vacantly into space [2]. 

In this post, I’ll discuss some of the main challenges you might experience during each of the key steps in the process of running online training using breakout rooms: planning, delivery and getting feedback afterwards. I’ve split the post into two. In the first half I will discuss planning a live session, and then once in the session, how to set the exercise up with your trainees. Then in part two, here, I will discuss managing breakout rooms during the exercise, and how to bring everyone back together into the main room. This isn’t intended to be a piece about the technical side of Zoom, but I have added in a few tips and links to further information on this.

I’ve been on both sides of the Zoom breakout rooms, but mostly, I am on the teaching end. I’ve been in my current job for four years, but it is since March 2019 that the shift has been from mostly class-based training to much more online training, and since March 2020 entirely online. I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I have also learnt a lot. I would be really interested to hear other people's thoughts on this topic, please post them as replies below. 


Here are some thoughts on things you might want to think about during the planning stage. 

Choosing your tech: I’m sure other software enables you to use breakout rooms, but we use Zoom. You will need to turn on the option for breakout rooms (details here). Blackboard collaborate is another option [1]. Do you have recommendations for any other software that does the same thing?  

Designing the group exercise: Before you start the training session it is important to be clear in your head about what the exercise is, its purpose and how it will be run. Overall, this is very similar to designing group work in the classroom setting, so you’ll be asking similar sorts of questions, such as: 

  • What is the purpose of this exercise?
  • What do I want trainees to learn?
  • What is the best way to achieve these goals?

In some cases, having been through the process above, you might actually decide that breakout rooms are not the best way of achieving your goals. Only use them if they fulfil your teaching objectives [2].

Software options for facilitating group work in breakout rooms: Anything cloud-based, such as Google docs & sheets or Padlet are great, as the trainees can work collaboratively to record ideas, and furthermore, you as the trainer can see how they are progressing with the task you’ve set. If there is nothing appearing on the worksheets, you might want to jump into the breakout room to check they are doing ok. You can do this by setting up a Google sheet in advance, with a tab for each breakout room. This is easily done, as each breakout room in Zoom is numbered automatically. You can, therefore, simply direct breakout room 1 to work in tab 1 etc. The trainer can then switch between tabs to see how each group is getting on.

Test it: As with any classroom exercise, it is a very good idea to test the exercise out with a colleague, friend or family member before running it for real with a group. 


Now imagine you are in that live training session, here are some things you might do and think about.

Zoom set up: During training on Zoom, I switch between sharing my screen and not sharing it. The benefit of not sharing it is that everyone can see other people’s videos larger, so it feels easier to connect with others on the call. Conversely, when I am explaining an exercise I usually share my screen with a slide up which summarises the exercise, as I find this helps to clarify what the exercise is.

Introduce the exercise: Because you can’t see trainees once they are in breakout rooms, you need to explain particularly carefully what trainees need to do, how long they have etc. To make it really clear, perhaps repeat the exercise briefly just before they go into the breakout rooms. Another thing we do is to paste a brief description (pre-written) of the exercise into the chat. This way trainees have that with them when they go into the breakout rooms.

Explain breakout rooms: If it is the first breakout room of the training workshop, I usually give a quick explanation about how the breakout rooms work. It is a strange concept! This includes things such as:

  • How to enter the rooms (trainees will get a notification inviting them to join)
  • How to ask for help when in the breakout rooms (by clicking ‘Ask for help’ in the toolbars, or by returning to the main session)
  • What will happen when the breakout rooms are closed (the default is that they will have 60 seconds before being automatically returned to the main session, but this can be changed by clicking ‘Options’ in the bottom left of the window when setting up the breakout rooms).

Group sizes and composition: Generally, we find that good group sizes of 3 to 4 work well for breakout rooms. If there are only two people it can sometimes cause complications, for example, if one person decides not to join or drops out because of internet issues, leaving one person in a room alone! If possible, I try to avoid putting people who know each other together, as it is easier for them to go off on a tangent. It, of course, depends on the design of the exercises and training workshop, but I often keep trainees in the same groups for two breakout sessions in a row, then mix them up. This way they don’t have to introduce themselves to each other every time and figure out the group dynamics, but it also gives opportunities for working with different people.

Assign roles: This is a great way of saving time and reducing faffing. For example, you might want to ask trainees to assign a scribe, so that when they are in the breakout room it is clear who is making notes. Also, I would recommend asking them to assign a spokesperson to feedback to the main group afterwards. This reduces the chance of an awkward silence when you ask the groups to share what they discussed in the breakout room with everyone else. 

Be flexible: If you happen to have a small group and they are really chatty in the main session, you may wish to stay as a whole group for the exercise. Running short on time is another reason that may decide to stay as a whole group, as putting people into breakout rooms, and then all coming back together does take longer. I am usually quite strict on timings, but sometimes some flexibility is a good thing. For example, if you are using cloud software (e.g. Google Sheets) for trainees to record outputs, you can judge the length of the breakout room by how quick they are making progress. I find, however, that if I give people a lot of time, they will take longer!

Tech note: To open the breakout rooms, click on the breakout rooms option in the Zoom toolbar, then decide whether you want to allocate trainees to rooms manually or automatically. One option is to pre-assign trainees to breakout rooms (see here). If you allocate trainees to rooms automatically, you can still move them around before you open the breakout rooms (see here).

So far I have talked about setting up the session and how to allocate people to breakout rooms. In the next part of this post, here, I will discuss what to do when trainees are in the breakout rooms, and how to bring everyone back together in the main session.

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Thanks to Matthew Creasey for comments and editing on this post. Thank you to Lucy Boddam-Whetham for co-delivering the online training workshops with me, from where most of these thoughts came.

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For more thoughts on learning and teaching in wildlife conservation please see my website and get in touch if you have any questions or thoughts.


1] Chandler K. (2016) Using Breakout Rooms in Synchronous Online Tutorials. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. 4: 16-23.

2] Saltz J & Heckman R. (2020) Using structured pair activities in a distributed online breakout room. Online Learning. 24: 227-244.