If you have attended a professional conference, then you have likely experienced or are familiar with breakout sessions. These typically short workshops occur in a space separate from and smaller than that of the keynote presentation and allow attendees to dive deeper into a topic than they could as a large group. You may have noticed that attendees in these sessions (yourself included) were more likely to share their thoughts, ideas, and questions. That has certainly been my experience. But breakout sessions needn’t only benefit those attending professional conferences. When used in the classroom, they can engage your students as well.
Breakout sessions allow for students to choose not only a topic they’d like to explore further, but also how they would like to explore it with a small group of their peers. Collaborative learning is something that many of us already utilize in our classrooms in the form of small group work. Techniques such as think-pair-share and traditional group projects are common and quite beneficial to student learning as they provide opportunities for students to learn with and from each other. These small group projects and discussions differ from breakout sessions, however, in that students are typically assigned to the same task.
Breakout sessions give students opportunities to explore topics in depth, reflect on their learning, and share personal experiences with their peers. While vital in any classroom, engaging students in the learning process can prove difficult in a large group setting. In large groups, time constraints or personal fears of sharing in front of large groups (or both) can stifle such sharing of information. There seems to be less perceived risk of embarrassment in opening up to a smaller group than to a large group. Moreover, when individuals can engage in dialog around a topic, they are likelier to engage with and retain the material being discussed and take greater responsibility for their learning. Robust small group discussions in turn strengthen larger group dialogue.
Crucially, engaging students in active learning and meeting their basic psychological needs can increase students’ motivation (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009) and thus contribute to their academic success (Bolkan, Goodboy, & Kelsey, 2016; Martin, Galentino, & Townsend, 2014). Self-determination theory (SDT) identifies these needs as autonomy, competence, and relatedness; breakout sessions relate directly to all three. During breakout sessions, students can select the small group they wish to join (autonomy) based on personal or academic interest (relatedness) and engage in collaborative learning with their peers (competence). Because SDT holds that social environments affect the degree to which these needs are met, however, how you orchestrate a breakout session matters greatly to its effectiveness. Below I offer some suggestions for how to manage breakout sessions to best support students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Ceding control in a classroom may be difficult for educators who are most comfortable lecturing. Fear not! Student-centered learning opportunities do not have to replace traditional lectures. Incorporating breakout sessions can enhance the content presented. When facilitating breakout sessions, it is important to create the time and space conducive to discussion, provide clear instructions or objectives for the sessions, and ensure that the objectives are relevant to the content and students’ academic interests to foster the psychological need of relatedness. The culmination of the session should include a debrief with the large group, and the facilitator should take care to allow students to guide the discussion and not provide students with answers.
In a traditional classroom, you can easily facilitate breakout sessions by assigning students to groups intentionally or in a way most convenient for the room setup. Allowing students to create their own groups fosters an environment that supports autonomy. Be sure to provide students with enough space so that they are not distracted by the other group discussions. In the online environment, many learning management systems have a breakout room feature (e.g., Desire2Learn’s Virtual Classroom and Blackboard Collaborate) that allows instructors to assign students to smaller chat rooms. If this is not an option, Google Hangouts is a great alternative for online chat space. To ensure that virtual breakout sessions run smoothly, be sure to coordinate the opening of all chat spaces and monitor them throughout the session to offer support in the event of technical issues.
Regardless of learning environment, allow time for students to introduce themselves if they haven’t gotten a chance to meet prior to this exercise, and give them a structured time frame for the small group discussion. Encourage students to structure their time so that each person has an opportunity to share their thoughts or experiences. By doing this, you establish an expectation that all students will participate and will efficiently utilize the time provided. Creating a space for students to more comfortably discuss their thoughts and ideas provides an autonomy-supportive environment in which students have a voice in their learning (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).
Ambiguous questions or objectives are detrimental to a successful breakout session. Identify the objectives the students should meet as a result of their discussion (sharing experiences, solving a problem, creating something, etc.), and state them clearly prior to the session. Integrate open-ended questions that foster discussion rather than yes-or-no responses. Depending on the level of comfort the students have in this type of setting and with the content, you may offer several guiding questions or statements (e.g., begin by . . . , continue . . . , or conclude with . . . ) in addition to the objectives. Diving deeply into a topic in a meaningful way, allows students to gain mastery. Challenging students and “allowing [them] to test and expand their academic capabilities” (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009, p. 139) during breakout sessions supports students’ feelings of self-efficacy and engagement—both of which have been shown to influence competence (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).
Think back to a conference or professional development session you participated in. Was the content meaningful or relevant to practice? How engaged were the participants? Students appreciate learning-centered activities (Wright, 2011); however, these activities should be meaningful, applicable to real-world problems, and related to course content. The third tenet of SDT, relatedness, is equally as important as autonomy and competence and represents the need to belong or feel close to an individual or group of individuals. Breakout sessions that are relevant to the student can support both the nonacademic and academic sides of relatedness (Roberson, 2013). As teachers, we can foster the nonacademic side of relatedness by creating a space in which relationships occur between student and instructor and well as between peers. We can support the academic side by helping students understand the importance of the content and showing them how it related to their current understanding and future learning. Breakout sessions provide such an environment where students can foster personal relationships with their peers as well as support students’ existing knowledge and experience as it relates to the content.
Quite possibly the most valuable part of the breakout session is the larger group debriefing that concludes the experience. Depending on the size of the full class, 15–20 minutes to bring everyone back together gives students the opportunity to share their understanding and creates a space for continued collaboration. The facilitator might ask each group to select a spokesperson who will share about their small group discussions. Students may share highlights of their discussions, or new questions may be posed by the students or teacher to further clarify a topic. The important thing to remember is to make this a collaborative, nonevaluative discussion with the entire class, not just a report of what occurred in the smaller group. This will vary according to the activity the students complete during the breakout session. This exercise allows students to see the similarities between groups as well as the value in differing thoughts and opinions among the full class. Furthermore, providing students with appropriate feedback surrounding their exploration of a topic and the learning progress further supports feelings of self-efficacy and competence (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). During the small group session, students gain confidence in sharing their opinions and may be more likely to offer their thoughts to the entire class. It is important to be mindful of students who have anxiety speaking in front of large groups. As such, I recommend not requiring each student to address the class after the breakout session concludes.
As educators, we strive to motivate and engage students in class. Regardless of the type of learning environment, breakout sessions may provide students with an opportunity to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversations with peers that foster their basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The support of these dimensions promotes students’ intrinsic motivation and increases their willingness to participate in learning activities (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). I encourage you to be open to incorporating breakouts sessions into your classroom as a valuable, learner-centered teaching technique.
Bolkan, S., Goodboy, A. K., & Kelsey, D. M. (2016). Instructor clarity and student motivation: Academic performance as a product of students’ ability and motivation to process instructional material. Communication Education, 65(2), 129–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2015.1079329
Martin, K., Galentino, R., & Townsend, L. (2014). Community college student success: The role of motivation and self-empowerment. Community College Review, 42(3), 221–241. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091552114528972
Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133–144. Retrieved from https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2009_NiemiecRyan_TRE.pdf
Roberson, R. (2013, September). Helping students find relevance. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2013/09/students-relevance
Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-centered learning in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 92–97. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ938583.pdf
Stephanie L. Wasmanski, EdD, is an assistant professor in the School of Education’s doctoral department at Wilkes University. She has taught numerous courses within the fields of psychology, business and leadership, and education. Her primary research interests include motivation, engagement, and mindfulness as they relate to student success in higher education.