Group activities in breakout rooms and interactive online teaching

Following great student feedback, we asked Razieh Zandieh to share the synchronous and asynchronous activities which helped to enhance social interaction amongst her students, and shape groups for group assignments.

She talks us through two types of activities: organising activities within breakout rooms, and group assignments.

Group Activities in breakout room

I designed a 15-min group activity for each synchronous teaching session. The activity was designed to evaluate students’ learning of lessons, to make teaching more interactive and to encourage students to share their ideas, and to provide a social platform for students to talk to each other and to know their classmates in the first semester. I conducted the group activity (via Zoom breakout rooms) in the middle of each session, after a 5-min break.

An example of a breakout group activity

Activity example 1

It was a change for students and made the online class less boring and helped students to better concentrate on lessons. At the end of each session, we had a 5-10 min Q&A time and students had a second chance to share their ideas and ask their questions.

For each session, I designed a different 15-min group activity (e.g., word-puzzle, evaluating a project, checking data base, analysing a situation by using Google map, etc.) . So, the activities were not repetitive and predictable (e.g., only a group discussion) at each session, and students experienced different types of activities and different ways for applying their knowledge. I think that some students may not be interested in specific types of activities (e.g., discussion) and changing types of activities is helpful in addressing a wider range of interests and talents in the class, and results in better students’ engagement.

I included at least one visual element (e.g., an image, graphic, map, short video, table of data, etc.) in each activity, and the activity was not limited to the text/instruction of the activity. In each group/breakout room, students could share screen and use the visual element for their argument. The visual element provided a base for thinking about the activity question, a connection between students, and a direction/focus for their arguments. So, students could complete/criticise each others’ ideas by considering different aspects of the visual element.

I, as the lecturer, joined the breakout rooms and I gave some tips on the activity, especially in quiet rooms, to stimulate thinking about the activity and to start the argument. I usually started with joining the groups with international students as these students may be shy or reluctant to express their ideas and to communicate with other students in the first semester.

Workshop 1 PDF

Activity example 2

I also designed some longer activities (e.g., 45-min activities). These activities were conducted in extra sessions after some lecture hours. These activities were more complicated, but the arrangements were similar to 15-min activities (explained above).

Group Assignment

Group assignments were challenging in the first semester as students did not know their classmates.  This module is related to different programmes and students do not necessarily have the same modules and do not necessarily have opportunities to communicate in other modules. The 15-min group activity was helpful but it was not enough for students to know their classmates. So, I had to provide more chances for social interaction in the first semester, in order to help students to shape their groups. Therefore, I provided social platforms in the first and second sessions:

  • The first session: I considered this an ice-breaking session. I pre-recorded all lessons of the first session and I delivered teaching asynchronously. In synchronous session, I had an introduction on the module and assignments and then students had group activities in breakout rooms. I had designed two word puzzles related to the lessons that were delivered asynchronously. Students had 20-30 min to complete each puzzle, this time was long enough to provide a chance for social interaction and communication in each group. I changed students’ groups for completing the second word puzzle, in order to increase the chance of meeting different classmates. These two activities (word puzzles) helped to evaluate students’ learning, provided an opportunity for students to ask questions on lessons, and provided an opportunity for students to talk to each other.
  • The second session: I planned for a coffee-hour after lecture time of the second session. We had a brief chat and introduction in the main room and then students had chances for communication in 20-min breakout rooms. Students’ groups were changed after 20 min in order to provide a chance to meet different students.

I created groups (threads) in Discussion Board and I asked students to join a group and to shape their groups. The advantage of using Discussion Board was that students could see members of each group and could communicate with them about joining the group or about a topic of their work. Students were informed that the information on Discussion Board is visible to everyone and they should not share private data or discussions on their work. After shaping all groups, I created groups on the Blackboard and each group had its own private space for discussions and exchanging files.

I realized that students’ workload was heavier during the lockdown, as they needed to study asynchronous materials for all modules. Therefore, I considered proportion between amount of asynchronous material (e.g., length of pre-recorded videos) and students’ time and workload. I provided heavier asynchronous materials (e.g., 45-min videos) at the beginning of the semester, when students were not very busy. I reduced the amount of asynchronous materials (e.g., to 10-min videos) when students were close to submission deadlines. This approach helped students to spend their time on their assignment rather than watching long pre-recorded videos. Students highly appreciated this and they provided positive feedback on this approach.

I provided different opportunities (e.g., Discussion Board, surgery sessions, email and online meetings) for students to discuss their work, ask their questions on their assignment, and get feedback on their group work.


Activity example 3

The students’ verbal and written feedback indicate that the teaching ideas were successful. Moreover, in session 3 and in session 5, I asked students (in breakout rooms) to discuss their ideas on online teaching and to provide feedback on online learning of this module. Students’ positive feedback made me confident that the teaching approach was interesting and effective for learning.

Based on students’ feedback in week 3, I made a small change (e.g., adding a 5-min break) in online teaching of this module and in week 5, I asked for their second feedback to make sure that everything was OK.

Evaluation / Student Feedback

“The live lectures tended to reinforce and build upon the content of the pre-record lectures. These lectures were reasonably short, and allowed for reading/additional research or us to use our time to work on our assignments. It is my view that this is a fair and balanced approach that other modules could learn from”.

“I like that we would have discussions each week and that the lectures were made interactive, which made them more interesting and fun”.

“Razi did a brilliant mix of asychronous and synchronous learning. Really liked how she structured both Found it very enjoyable”.

“Having shorter asynchronus lectures on the weeks where we had our assignment to work on was helpful, because it allowed us to make better use of our time and focus on the assignments outside of the lectures. Having the opportunity to ask questions after each section of the lecture and throughout the week via email was helpful. Going into breakout rooms with different people each week was a great way of meeting new students – especially helpful when it came to forming assignment groups. Using Zoom for teaching instead of BlackBoard Collaborate”.

“The pre-records and live lectures were really thorough and informative. I really enjoyed the break out sessions as we got a chance to apply the knowledge on actual sites/projects. I feel like this applied style of learning really helped with my understanding of the topics and themes for each lecture”.

“Ability to pick own groups- meant I could pick people on the same course with similar timetables. Able to make better connections with students on my course”.

“the opportunity to meet other students in breakout rooms and the ‘coffee hour’ helped when forming the groups. There were plenty of opportunities for asking questions and recieving tips and advice for the online assessment”.

“Breakout rooms – when with people who participate were good for this class. This is down to good class mates and lots of opportunities via a variety of tasks”

“The live lectures and opportunities to speak to colleagues on the course have been good. If everything was pre-recorded it wouldn’t feel like a normal university learning experience”.

  • Encouraging students’ engagement in online teaching
  • Enhancing social interactions
  • Facilitating group work and doing assignment
Top Tips
  • Include different types of activities in different sessions
  • Include visual elements in activities, if it is possible
  • Consider students’ workload and explain how this issue has been addressed in teaching plan


School: School of Environment, Education & Development

Discipline: Planning & Environmental Management

Academic: Razieh Zandieh

Course: PLAN60111 & 44011 – Design for Healthy Places

Cohort Size: 56

Themes: Learning Socially, Student support, Teaching Idea(s), Enhancing learning with technology

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