“You have 15 minutes to network,” the facilitator announced. The breakout rooms opened, and I was transported into a new space with four strangers. A long, awkward silence was followed by the timid words, “What are we supposed to do?” We all wondered the same thing.
Are you sending participants into breakout room blackholes? Are you sending them to their rooms hoping they’ll make the most of it?
There is a better way!
I use the five rules of my breakout rooms in all of my training. Yes, I said rules—rules because, if you follow these, participants will know what to do and have a more productive time.
Here are my five breakout room rules:
Rule 1: Give clear, specific instructions for the breakout room activity.Give me a map and I’m more likely to end up at my destination. Let learners know their destination with key details before entering the breakout room.
- Outcome: What do you want them to do?
- Method: How will they do it?
- Support: Who is responsible?
- Message: What will they report back?
I use the same instruction slide format for all activities (displayed in the following image). This creates a familiarity with the style and signals to learners that a breakout room is about to happen. My producer copies and pastes the instructions into chat so learners can see them in their breakout rooms.
Rule 2: Keep groups small.Smaller groups can discuss, problem-solve, and brainstorm with more depth and focus than larger groups. Five or fewer people per group is more likely to allow everyone to contribute. Larger groups will make it harder for everyone to contribute.
Rule 3: Assign a facilitator.The facilitator can help keep time, keep the activity moving, and report the group’s work back to the main room. I like to use creative ways to assign facilitators, such as choosing:
- The person with the longest or shortest hair
- The last person who ate chocolate
- The person with the brightest socks on
- The middle child
You can also ask for someone to volunteer in each group, but giving a little more guidance gives the groups something to talk about immediately.
Rule 4: Set a time limit.Give participants enough time to work through the activity, but not too much time. You want a bit of urgency to keep the group focused and on task. Broadcast time notices as the groups are working. If you are using a shared document where you can see progress, adjust the time if more is needed.
For most of my breakout groups, I use the rule of 12 minutes based on John Medina’s 10-minute attention research.
Rule 5: Ask facilitators to report back.Ask group facilitators to report back ONE item or highlight from their group. Asking for something concise for the group to share will help to manage time and give the group a clear goal they are working toward.
Are you following my five rules?
Breakout groups are an essential element of my training design. In the virtual classroom, they build connections and help learners tackle tough concepts together.
For more insights, join me at ATD TechKnowledge for my session Small Groups, Big Results: Use Breakout Rooms to Transform Learning.