October 2022
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Three computer screens showing people in difference breakout rooms
TD Magazine

Break Out of Virtual Breakout Anxiety

Friday, September 30, 2022

Effectively design and facilitate interactive small-group spaces online.

Although some online training facilitators may add one breakout activity to their virtual training program because "it seems like a good thing to do," how can we be more strategic about thoughtful design and targeted implementation for enhanced learning? Admittedly, there are challenges. Three of the most common include learners not participating equally, learners not staying on task, and some learners not engaging at all. Research across the board suggests that when learners are left to their own devices, they struggle to interact successfully. However, by transforming the breakout experience, you can improve outcomes for your learners.


Why breakouts?

The benefits to breakouts may seem self-evident. Perhaps the most obvious are increased engagement and collaborative learning, because they leverage learner-to-learner interactions. They also provide learners with the ability to exchange ideas, which is easier to do in a small group versus a large group. A reduced learner group size in breakouts—when done well—also facilitates greater opportunity for attendee reflection and processing of the material participants are learning.

With successful breakouts, you'll also notice increased confidence in participants once they return to the main session, because they've been empowered to share ideas and gain peer-to-peer support from each other. Further, small breakouts increase participants' comfort level to share their voice, because it feels less risky than responding in front of the entire group. Although learners may be less reticent to share ideas, ask questions, or make comments aloud, they are more likely to do so in a small group. And after they've shared aloud in a breakout, they're more likely to do so again.

Conducive activities for virtual breakouts

The activities you select really depend on your training program's purpose and goal. Are you strategically trying to warm learners up for participation? When I include a breakout to intentionally warm up vocal involvement, for example, I strategically schedule it near the beginning of the training program to help participants move beyond the inertia of nonaction as soon as possible.

Maybe your objective is for participants to build connection and get to know each other on the front end, apply what they're learning to a case scenario, or generate as many new ideas as possible.

The following activities lend themselves well to breakouts.

Connection activities. When connection is the goal, breakouts can help participants find commonality with each other. That way they can learn more about who's sharing the learning experience with them.

Connection here also has a second connotation—that is, your goal may be for the breakout to help participants connect the content they're learning to their experience or future practice. For example, in their breakouts, they may share one item they will apply next week from class.

Problem solving. During problem-solving activities, participants can learn from each other while applying content learned. For example, learners may previously have completed an asynchronous assignment on their own and then in the synchronous breakouts, work together to solve a problem by coming up with a proposed solution.

Case scenario challenges. Case scenarios are fictional scenarios based on the real world. They set up a scene with characters and a challenge for learners to work through by applying material they previously learned in the training program. When I taught psychological safety, I gave each breakout group a different scenario where they had to identify how the leader could go about restoring and cultivating a psychologically safe climate.

Project-based work. For this activity, learners can identify how they will apply to the real world what they're learning. For example, when I was teaching an English proofreading class to learners in Asian countries, I gave participants a writing sample with many errors. In their breakout groups, they had to identify all the proofreading errors, which is part of their functional work in their roles.

Role plays. This is an opportunity to take different sides and to apply techniques learned. For instance, learners can try out a pitch to a customer or a response to an employee and then receive constructive feedback.

Brainstorming/ideating. Because of the collaborative nature of breakouts, they're also great places for brainstorming. Hearing multiple perspectives adds value on multiple levels, and when participants share ideas, they come up with better ideas as a group than they would individually.

Skill practices with feedback. This activity enables learners to practice exactly what they're learning. For example, when I taught a virtual program on storytelling, learners first worked independently in individual breakouts writing their leadership story based on what they had learned in class. I popped into their individual breakouts to check on them to assist where needed. Another example is novice trainers taking a class to learn how to write learning objectives. After teaching participants as a large virtual class how to do them, use breakouts to have them practice writing learning objectives in a small group.

Gamification. Breakouts can entail review games, or you can gamify training content. As the second edition of Interact and Engage (ATD Press) suggests, you can even set up the breakouts to be like an escape room challenge, where learners receive a clear problem to solve, which invites high engagement. For instance, their goal could be to successfully "escape" their breakout by applying techniques they learned. Have a lead in the room to guide them as needed.

Discussion prompt. Learners often take a more vested, active role when they are assigned roles for a discussion. For example, ask for a volunteer to be the proponent, another volunteer to be a skeptic to bring out another side, and a facilitator to ensure all sides of the argument are heard. You'll find greater participation in the small groups with this added structure in some cases.

Reflection. A critical—yet often overlooked—part of learning is reflection. To use it in breakouts, ask learners to work on their own reflection assignments while you check in to see how they're progressing or whether they need assistance. Alternatively, learners could complete a reflection digital worksheet first on their own and then join a breakout to share their thoughts and hear others' reflections.

Independent work. Consider allowing those who may prefer it the option to work alone (do so without labeling them introverts or calling them out as such). This can create a safe space for those who will reflect more deeply without social anxiety.

How to ensure breakout groups stay on task

A popular question many virtual facilitators ask is about keeping participants on task. With in-person instruction, you can more readily discern whether small-team interactions are going well or require your involvement or a boost. In the online environment, though, you are not able to visibly or more readily assess the level of activity occurring or lack thereof.

One way to ensure learners are on task is to assign a team lead or group facilitator to each group before releasing them to breakouts. Make sure to verbally ask the individuals whether they would be willing to serve in that role. With a facilitator already selected, once in their small groups, participants will be more efficient with their tasks.

Some virtual training platforms have built-in tools to check on participant activity. For example, Zoom has a feature where you can view participants' activity status while learners are in breakouts. That enables you to see whether they have unmuted, turned on their video, are screen sharing, or are using active reactions like a thumb's up icon to give others feedback. That is one way to have a pulse on what is happening during the breakout while you are in the main session.

I also recommend that you pop into breakouts to check on how things are going and how you may assist. Doing so will help you get a sense of whether participants need more time or have completed the assignment early. If I'm working with a seasoned producer who knows the topic, I leverage their expertise and request they briefly join some of the breakouts so that we can divide and conquer.

When you hop from breakout to breakout, avoid asking questions like "Do you need help?" or "Is anyone stuck?" People will often deny they need help in the first place even if they do, because no one likes to admit in front of others that they need assistance. Instead, pose a general question such as "How is it going?" That way, participants will give you a status update, and if they're struggling with the assignment, it will emerge naturally so you can help them move forward.

When you join a breakout, speak right away. Otherwise, you may not get the chance to do so. I liken this to a restaurant server who checks on a table when the diners are engrossed in conversation. If the server waits until they can get a word in edgewise, they may never have the chance to ask, "How is your meal?"

Breakout dos and don'ts

Learning what not to do is often a better teacher than what to do, so let's begin there. Many common errors related to breakout activities consist of facilitators assigning too much to do in too little time. An example of that is assigning five discussion questions for a breakout activity and allocating five minutes to do so. That is problematic because it is an unrealistic amount of time for learners to properly discuss that many questions meaningfully and deeply.

Also factor in time for interpersonal elements. For example, once breakouts start, it can take a bit of time for a small group to join, regroup themselves, begin to come off mute, and say hello or get going on the activity. Build a time buffer into your allotted time to account for those interpersonal elements. And if the learners don't yet know each other, encourage them to introduce themselves first briefly, although many will do so naturally on their own. In that case, it's much better to assign one good discussion with a generous time allotment.


Defaulting to only discussion questions or not identifying a desired goal or objective for the activity is another common error. Discussion questions certainly have their place and organically emerge from a variety of online activities; however, there are many more options (as discussed earlier) for you to consider

Now let's focus on some of the dos.

Size. Keep the size of your groups to three to four participants. That prevents individuals from hiding and gives everyone the chance to contribute. Most learners prefer a smaller size because it lends itself better to feeling safer to share in smaller groups first. I find that learners first vetting their ideas in a small group where they receive positive feedback from peers boosts their confidence to then share their ideas to the larger group where previously they would have stayed quiet.

Structured pair activity. Breakouts work well for dyads—a pair of learners can become partners and work one-on-one with an assigned learning activity. According to Jeffrey Saltz and Robert Heckman's study, "Using Structured Pair Activities in a Distributed Online Breakout Room," the use of structured paired activities in online breakout rooms increases student engagement and process effectiveness.

Same learners in multiple breakouts. Most learners prefer to have the same people in each breakout throughout the training program. Although the downside of that is less networking with other people, most learners feel higher levels of comfort and more efficiencies in collaboration when they work with the same people over time.

Debrief. Ensure you adequately build in time to debrief the exercise or assignment that learners completed in the breakouts. Participants are often eager to share what they accomplished, and there's a pride and an expectation to bring back highlights to the larger group. Debriefs are also a great way to learn from others because what one group discovers may be vastly different from another group's observations.

Time warning. Use your broadcast messaging tools to send a two-minute warning to all groups before bringing them back to the main session. That way they know to wrap up their conversations. Most platforms allow a 30-second alert to participants before returning them. Also, you can give learners the rights to return on their own to the main session, which gives them greater control and independence.

Crystal-clear task instructions. Inevitably, regardless of whether the small-group work is in person or online, once you release participants to their breakouts, a learner in a group will always ask, "What are we doing again?" That is why it's imperative that you are extremely clear about the instructions and assignment for their work. Make sure there are online handouts learners can reference for the activity. Also let them know how they can get ahold of you.

Before releasing the groups, I will ask for a volunteer to paraphrase their understanding of their task or ask the group "What questions do you have?" That invites any final checks for clarification.

By following these guidelines, not only will your learners successfully break out, but their group work and your overall virtual training programs will also stand out.

Diana L. Howles is an international virtual trainer, award-winning speaker, and author of Next Level Virtual Training: Advance Your Facilitation (ATD Press); howlesassociates.com.

The Evolution of Breakouts

Some refer to breakouts as breakout rooms. However, the term "room" is outdated and limiting because it places subconscious constraints on our understanding of what online small groups can be. I prefer to reframe breakout rooms as interactive spaces because learners are interacting in open, shared virtual spaces no longer constrained by four walls.

Over the years, I've been privy to the evolution of breakout groups. They first began as audio-only using phone lines paired with technology platforms for the internet connection. Later, they evolved to adding in visual whiteboards and shared views of visual, online documents for participants. Then there was improved video and computer audio, and more recently, breakouts are supporting more learner agency with participants selecting for themselves which interactive space and when to enter and exit breakouts.

About the Author

Diana L. Howles, MA, is an award-winning speaker and international virtual trainer who brings 25 years of experience in the learning industry. As a world-class facilitator, she has trained Fortune 100 and 500 companies and facilitated virtual programs in more than a dozen countries. Diana is currently CEO of Howles Associates. She earned a master's degree from Colorado State University and is a frequent presenter at international in-person and virtual conferences. She is author of the new book Next Level Virtual Training: Advance Your Facilitation available on Amazon. She can be reached through her website www.howlesassociates.com, via LinkedIn, or on Twitter @DianaHowles.ions.

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