Using breakout rooms creates effective online training meetings (eLearning)

Use Breakout Rooms For eLearningMany of our clients struggle with making online training as effective as in-person training.  After sixteen years in the business, we’ve seen various methods help to increase the effectiveness of online training.  But none are as powerful as the proper use of breakout sessions. 

It makes perfect sense since breakout rooms provide an environment for andragogy to thrive.

As a professional trainer, you may be familiar with Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions about adult learners.  According the Knowles and the followers of andragogy, incorporating these assumptions into the curriculum can lead better results, especially when it comes to online training meetings. 

– Adult learners like to be seen as capable and self-directing.

– Adult learners bring a wealth of experience to educational settings.

– Adults have a readiness to learn in the right circumstances.

– Adults are problem-centered in their learning.

– Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors. 

Capable & Self-Directed

This is not to say that all adults want to have complete control over their learning experience, but most adults like to be involved with decisions that directly affect them – like what we learn and how we learn it.  We like having the ability to control own experiences.    We don’t need to have complete control over the curriculum, but we learn better when we have some sense of control. 

Thus the best learning environment for adults is collaborative, flexible and safe.   In this type of environment, adults can share ideas, experiences, and learning through conversation and the exchange of information.   This provides a sense of control.  Being directed from module to module provides no sense of control. 

Creating an online environment that meets this goal is no easy task.    Online environments are highly developed and designed.  There is not a lot of room for on-the-fly flexibility directed by the learners.   Games and simulations may provide a feeling of self-direction, but those are very expensive to develop. Breakout meetings, on the other hand, aren’t expensive or time consuming and they provide greater flexibility and learner control.

Here’s an example.

Bill, a corporate trainer, is brought in to help improve communication practices in a department that is dispersed across the country.

This online class has 35 participants.

 As an introduction to the course and a way to give the group some control over the content, Bill starts his training with a breakout session.   He gives explicit instructions and sets clear expectations before breaking the class out into groups of four.   Each group member must then share a time when his or her own communication was misunderstood and share a time when someone else’s poor communication resulted in a problem. Based on this discussion, the group comes up with a learning objective for the course.   

This example actually takes advantage of several adult-learning assumptions.  But you can see how this exercise can give the adult learner a sense of control over the curriculum.   

Wealth of Experience

People bring a wealth of experience and insight to the educational environment.  This assumption acknowledges that both participants and the instructor can benefit and learn from each other’s experience.  Since adults are often the best resources for each other, group discussions and collaborative assignments are a great way for adults to learn.

It’s easy to see the benefits of breakout sessions for this learning assumption.  The virtual breakout is really the only tool trainers have in elearning to facilitate such learning through group discussions. 

Of course, in order for this to work, participants must be willing to share their experiences and learn from one another. For various reasons, some people shy away from sharing their knowledge and experience.  More shy away from revealing they are ignorant of a something and won’t ask questions.   In an effort to create a safe space, many of our clients use an anonymous chat feature to get the conversation going. 

For example

A larger group is split into random breakout sessions with instructions to type their questions into the anonymous chat feature. Then the group discusses the questions and reports their findings to the entire class.

Readiness to Learn 

Adults’ readiness to learn is oriented towards their the development of their social roles.  There are specific triggers in one’s life that reveal a need for new knowledge. When these triggers are hit, most people generate a desire to learn.  Thus, adults want to know why they need to know something before dispensing the time and effort needed to learn it.  

Each person enters the learning environment with a specific reason to learn.  Maybe it’s a personal desire or an employer requirement.  Either way the learner should know the specific goals of a course, why they are learning them and how the knowledge can affect their lives. 

A great way to apply this assumption to online learning is to allow the participants to discuss in small groups how the lessons within the course can help them accomplish their individual goals.

A trainer can also use individual goals to group together those with similar interests. 

Many individuals may not be able to identify what they need to know or be able to align the course objectives to their own lives. Facilitators may be able to help them articulate their needs by asking open-ended questions about areas of their work or life that need improvement.   

Once one or two people in the large group setting answer these questions, the class can break into smaller groups to discuss and answer the questions on their own.

With the right meeting solution, the trainer can go from group to group and check on their progress.

Problem-Centered Learning

Knowles assumed that adults normally do not look to learn something simply for the sake of learning.  They pursue learning in order to solve problems in their lives. They don’t learn for future, unknown reasons.  Adults need to immediately apply what they learn to real life situations.  

Thus the theory of what’s being taught should be explained along side its practicality.  Adults need to see how a lesson can help them solve real life problems.

Breakout sessions provide an excellent opportunity for this because they provide the perfect environment for role-playing.  

For example

One of our clients is a sales trainer. She uses breakout rooms to allow her class to practice the selling tactics she teaches. 

She breaks the class into groups of 3 and assigns a sales tactic to practice.

One person plays the salesperson, one plays the prospect and one observes the interaction.

They have 3 minutes to play out the scenario. The observer critiques the interaction. Then they rotate roles until everyone has a chance to play all three parts. 

This is a great way for learners to immediately apply what they just learned to real world situations.  Through role-play they can experience how these lessons will be useful in real world situations.

Internal Motivation

Knowles believed that we are motivated to learn, primarily, by internal factors.  Things like increased self-esteem, recognition and self-actualization. Thus adults learn better when they are acknowledged and appreciated for their individual contributions to the class.

In a large virtual class, it’s rare for the instructor to get the opportunity to acknowledge individual contributions – mostly because it’s hard for an individual to contribute in a meaningful way. This changes when you incorporate breakout rooms into your training sessions. 

For example

Let’s say you have a class of 50 and break the class out into groups of 5 for a 20-minute group project.   The students now have the opportunity to contribute to the class.  You have the ability to visit with each group.    You can listen to the discussions and call out those who are doing a good job – either within the group or afterwards when the class regroups.

So now it’s time for you to share. Have you ever used a breakout room or group activity to increase the effectiveness of your training sessions? Let us know in the comments.

Interested in learning more?  Our virtual breakout session guide is a free resource you can use to create successful breakout sessions for your virtual meetings. 



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