Small Group Meetings on Zoom

An alternative, with different functionality, to “breakout rooms.”

Zoom, a video-conferencing tool that lots of folks have started to use for teaching recently, has a “breakout room” feature. It has to be enabled in one’s settings (via My Account > Settings on the web sign-in page) and then a meeting host can split a session up into multiple separate conversations.

Here’s another approach that is integrated with the Canvas (Quercus at UofT) platform.

I want to split my class of 64 into groups so that each student can present her work in progress and get feedback from peers. I want every student to have the opportunity to present over the course of a 3 hour class session.

Basics: I’m going to divide the class time into several “rounds” or “sessions” during which several student groups will meet in parallel. During each round a student is either a presenter or a feeder-back. Every student has one role or the other over the course of the class.

First I decide on the timing and group size. The constraint is the number of students. One scenario is 8 sessions with 8 groups in each session and 8 students in each group. If I divide my 180 minutes up evenly (with a little wiggle time for transitions and a break) this gives me 20 minute sessions. Other options:

  • Four 45 minute sessions with 16 groups of 4 students
  • Sixteen 10 minute sessions with 4 groups of 16 students

Once you’ve decided on the number of sessions, take the class roster and assign everyone a session to present in. For example, if I have 8 sessions I assign first 8 students to session 1, next 8 to session 2, and so forth.

Next: in Canvas go to People > +Group Set and call it, say, ROUND1. Then tell Canvas to randomly assign students to N groups where N is the number of groups per session that I will need.

Click the arrow to expand all the groups so you can see who is where. Go to your presentation assignment list to see who presents in round 1. Say the first one is Amal. Scan the students in the group until you find the group Amal is in. Make Amal the group leader and change the name of the group to Amal.

If the next student for round 1 is Bashar, scan the groups until you find the one Bashar is in, make Bashar the group leader and rename the group Bashar.

If the student you are looking for is in an already named group, just swap them with any student in an unassigned group and make this the student’s group as above.

Once you have all the presenters assigned in this round you should see a group set with each group having the name of a presenter.

Now repeat this whole process creating a group set for ROUND2 and so forth.

Once the groups are set up, go to DISCUSSIONS in Canvas and create a discussion topic for each round. The description can be the same for all of them. But when you get to the settings, choose “Make this a group discussion” and then select the group set that you created for that round. Thus the discussion topic “Round 1 Presentations” uses the group set “Round 1.”

When a student clicks on the first discussion topic she will see a notice that says “this is a group discussion and here are the groups you have access to” and then the name of the presenter she will be with that session.

You share the roster with the round assignments so that students know what round they present in along with a schedule saying what time each round happens.

Students create Zoom meetings for their designated time slot and they post the meeting invitation as an announcement in the group workspace that Canvas creates each time you make a group. This announcement then goes out to everyone in the group – all the students who should come to that meeting.

After the meeting, students post feedback for the presenter as posts in the discussion. Canvas keeps track for you of who contributed so you have a record of group participation in the critique session.

The advantages of this method (which no doubt seems logistically challenging but it’s not once you try it and then it’s set up for reuse) are that it systematically gives every student a slice of “the floor” – attention on her work – and that it ties a digital workspace to the conversation. The group space can contain drafts, handouts, pages the presenter creates, ongoing dialog and feedback after the “face-to-fade” synchronous session, etc., mitigating, a bit, the effervescent quality of remote-interaction.

Remote Small Group Interaction

As we prepare to social distantify our teaching I’m adapting something I use a lot in the “active” classroom to the online context.

I describe the “Pitch and Catch” technique in a previous blog post. Here’s the TL/DR version.

Everyone brings their work-in-progress to class; over four 15 minute rounds every student sits with 3 peers, “pitches” her current draft and gets intense, “iteration forward” feedback*; each round the groups are shuffled so that over the course of 60 minutes everyone sits with 9 different classmates, one round as pitcher and three as catcher. In my classes of 64 students the one hour yields 16 student-experience-hours of having one’s work the intense focus of classmates’ attention and 48 student-experience-hours of give-and-take critique with classmates.

I’ve just adapted this for remote classroom. Here’s my toolkit and workflow.
I built a simple “app” that takes a comma separated list of student names and produces randomized groups of 4 for four rounds. The output looks like this:


Next I create “Group Sets” in Canvas for each round. This is a little bit labor intensive but barely a half an hour of work for a class of 64. Groups are named so that students can easily connect them back to the table and the round.

Four students are assigned to each one, based on the output of the app above. The pitcher is made the team “leader.”

There are lots of tools we can use for remote video but for this demonstration we use Zoom. The free version allows sessions up to 40 minutes and has a very shallow learning curve; it’s easy to get up to speed with screen sharing, interactive whiteboards, etc.

We make the pitchers in each session responsible for setting up the meeting on Zoom. They fill in some information like this:

And they copy some “invite” text to the clipboard:

Inside Canvas the student goes to the group’s “Home Page” (essentially a section of Canvas pages reserved for members of the group)

and she posts an “Announcement” (just like an instructor can do for the whole class but this one only goes to the group members and the instructor). Each group member sees this and can click on the link to join the meeting at the appointed time.

If the group wants to it can have the host’s machine keep a copy of the meeting. Peer feedback is collected either as answers to questions in Canvas discussion or on a Google form like the one below. We have folks wait until AFTER the session to fill in the form so that it’s the product of some reflection rather than contemporaneous note-taking (which is what we found when folks had the form open during the session).

We do a mail merge with the data (there’s currently a bit of hand massaging needed in Excel to make this happen but we’ll automate that soon) from the feedback form so that each student receives written critique AND we have a “kudos for you” section, an acknowledgment of things other people appreciated during the session. Here’s what the feedback looks like – we either send a PDF through Canvas or paste the text as a Canvas comment.

*a concept developed many years ago at the top of Piedmont Ave with Maia Averett within earshot of Joe Edelman