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Kristen LwinSocial work professor Kristen Lwin encourages her students to show their faces during online sessions to foster connection.

Break-out sessions allow for connections online

When planning to teach her first-year social work course “Meeting Human Needs Through Social Welfare” online for the fall semester, Kristen Lwin knew her students would need to feel comfortable with the online learning format and speaking up during the discussions.

Each 90-minute class on Zoom included a 30- to 45-minute lecture followed by a discussion of a related question or topic. For 15 minutes, the 152 students would go into “Breakout Rooms” of three or four randomly assigned students to discuss.

“The first class I said, ‘just go in the breakout room and meet somebody and just start talking’. I encouraged a lot of discussion around candy to break the ice,” laughs Dr. Lwin.

One of the challenges professors face when teaching online is receiving student feedback when most students have their cameras turned off.

“It is horrid lecturing to a screen of blank squares. I don’t know what’s happening, or if they understand the concepts I’m talking about,” Lwin says. “So many students are nervous about being online and being on camera. Many students emailed me about their concerns.”

Two of her students, Abigail Marchand and Iris Filip, did turn their cameras on during an early breakout discussion.

“We talked about the discussion question, not our personal lives, but we both said later that we felt a ‘vibe’,” explains Marchand.

Filip messaged Marchand after class and they exchanged social media information. Since then they connect a couple of times a week.

“This was the only class where we actually had the opportunity to speak with other students and interact,” explains Filip. “We could have a conversation and get to know each other. I think many of our peers appreciated this opportunity as well.”

Marchand notes the earned her highest grades of the fall semester in this course.

“I truly believe it was because of the discussions in breakout rooms,” she says. “It gave us a time to discuss topics in lecture rather than having a lecture alone.”

Another of Marchand’s courses used larger breakout rooms with eight students in each and the first-year students found it more difficult to communicate their ideas. People often talked over one another, which is more likely to happen if students have their cameras turned off — there are no visual cues.

“It is hard to have a conversation with a blank square,” says Marchand.

Adds Filip: “So many students either leave before the breakout rooms start or don’t speak at all.”

Both students felt that having an opportunity to share their opinions and hear different points of view helped further their understanding of the lecture material. They found that professors didn’t always have time to answer all the questions in class when they allowed students to communicate only via typing in the chat.

First-year students used their initiative to create class study groups and group chats online through a variety of platforms, including Discord and Instagram chat.

Marchand’s disabilities studies class had an Instagram chat site where the professor and teaching assistant would post reminders for students such as “don’t forget to stay hydrated” or “take breaks when studying.”

Filip explains that online group chats proved to be an efficient and convenient form of communication between students.

“If anyone had a question or concern, they would post it, and its response could be seen by everyone, which allowed us all to be on the same page,” she says. “I was surprised by how kind and open other students were. It created a sense of community; something I found invaluable as a first-year student.”

Lwin took into account feedback from the fall as she planned her first-year course this semester.

“This semester I will be more explicit in my instructions for breakout room discussions — chat about the discussion question for five minutes and then talk about anything for 10 minutes,” she says. “Also, try to turn on your camera and microphone at least for the breakout room even if you don’t for the class.”

Marchand and Filip are both grateful to Lwin for connecting them. They encourage other students to participate in class and put themselves out there in hopes that many more friendships are formed.

—Susan McKee