Mastering breakout rooms: 7 common mistakes and how to fix them

It’s every online teacher’s worst nightmare: you set up the activity, things are going well in the first break out room, then you go into the fourth break out room and… silence. No one is talking. What went wrong?

To solve any problem, you first need to understand the cause. What’s stopping your students from speaking in breakout rooms? In this post we’ll explore seven common teaching mistakes that result in silent breakout rooms. For each, we’ll explore the problem and look at potential solutions. Let’s get started!

Reason #1: The students don’t know what’s expected of them.

The problem: Bad instructions. If your instructions are unclear, students won’t know what to do. Unclear instructions are also a problem in face-to-face lessons. But in face-to-face lessons, we can quickly scan the room for confused looks. Online, it’s more difficult to gauge how much students understand. It’s also harder for students to hear instructions online. Audio from microphones is often unclear. Lipreading is difficult online. Bad connections can sabotage even well delivered instructions. Students might only realize they didn’t understand the instructions after they get to the breakout room, when it’s too late to ask for help. All these reasons make it essential that your instructions are clear and you have a plan B (and plan C) for when they’re not.

The solutions:

  • Tell the students what to do orally and include written instructions as well. Allowing students to read and listen should double the chances for learners to understand what they’re meant to do. Copy and paste the written instructions into the chat box so students can read these when they’re in the breakout rooms. Finally, ask students to take a screenshot of the slide before putting learners in groups.
  • Give an example of what to do. Demonstrating with a student can be tricky online, especially if internet connections are unstable. Model what you want students to do by yourself. Afterwards, ask one or two instruction checking questions. Keep these easy at low levels (e.g. How many…? What will you do if…? What will you say…?) At higher levels you can ask more open-ended questions (like, “What do you need to do?”)
  • After starting the activity, go around the breakout rooms as quickly as possible to check students are on track. You only need to be in a breakout room for 5-10 seconds to figure out if students know what to do (or not). If things sound okay, move onto the next room. If not, clarify what you need the students to do, then move on. After you’ve checked all the breakout rooms for understanding instructions, start monitoring for errors, language use, etc.


Reason #2: None of the students want to be the first to talk

The problem: If you’re sitting next to someone face-to-face in silence, it feels awkward. Breaking the silence is the natural thing to do. Online, the opposite is true. Sitting in silence with your camera off feels less awkward than turning your camera on and conversing with a stranger. There’s a social cost to being the first person to speak: if the other people in group ignore you, you feel silly. The easiest way to avoid this is to avoid being the first person to talk. If none of the students want to be the first to talk, you’ve got a silent breakout room on your hands. This is especially likely if your students are shy or come from a less expressive culture.

The solution: One way around this problem is to give roles to your students. Make one person in each group the team leader. Tell them it’s their job to get the group talking to each other. You’ve given this student a reason to be the first person to talk.

Depending on how reticent your learners are about opening their mouths, consider adding other roles, such as …

  • involver. They have to encourage everyone in the group to participate.
  • language police. They must encourage the group to speak English as much as possible.
  • note taker. They have to record the outcome of their groups’ work.
  • reporter. They have to report back to the rest of the class about what was said in the breakout room.

Introduce the roles gradually to your learners and match these to the task at hand.

Reason #3 The students don’t know the outcome for the group work

The problem: Imagine you tell students “In groups, I want you to talk about your home towns”, what would your students say? They might each say one or two sentences about where they’re from. “I’m from Perth. It’s a small town. It’s near a river.” If you don’t tell the students why they’re talking, they’re unlikely to say much. (They’re also unlikely to listen to each other).

The solution: Tell students the outcome you want. Outcomes (or ‘goals’ or ‘aims’ or whatever you want to call them) students can’t figure out where they’re trying to get to. Instead of asking students to talk about their hometowns, say “Find at least three things you and your partner’s home towns have in common. If you have time, also find three differences.” Now the students need to give details about where they’re from. They also need to listen to what the other students in the breakout room say (to find things in common). You’ve also given them something to do if they finish quickly.

Outcomes focus on outcome, not the process. Some examples are below.

Bad instructions

Outcomes based instructions

“Read the song lyrics and say what you think they mean.”

“Read the song lyrics. What advice would your group give the singer about the problem he has?”

“Talk to the rest of your group about why learning English is important. “

“Look at the reasons for learning English. Rank these from most important to least important.”

“Look at these holiday destinations and discuss which ones do you like.”

“Your group is going on a vacation. Decide on which of these holiday destinations you want to go to most and give (at least) three reasons.”

“Read the controversial statements in your group and debate these.”

“Change the controversial statements in your group until everyone in the group agrees with them.”

Reason #4: The students were cognitively overloaded

The problem: The human brain is a bit like an out-of-date phone: the more apps you have running, the slower the processing speed. This is especially the case when doing something in a language we’re less proficient in. Take these instructions for example: “Read the text, decide on the key information, check this with other students in your group, then put the information in order of importance, then decide on a solution.” If your instructions sound like these, your students might be silent because your task is too complicated.

The solution: Simplify your tasks. For example, avoid asking students to do too many things at the same time. Try not to

  • ask your students to read and speak at the same time. Your students already find reading difficult. It’s much harder if you need to talk (and listen to your partner talking) at the same time.
  • give students too much information at once. Give learners just enough information to engage in a discussion. If there’s too much to sift through, students will spend too much time reading and not enough time speaking.
  • give instructions which have more than three steps. If learners need to keep the five different stages of your task in their working memory, they won’t have space left to use the new language you just taught them. Ask students to take a screenshot of the instructions before going to the breakout room. Alternatively, send the instructions to students again via the chat function once they’re in the breakout rooms.


Reason #5 The students don’t have enough to talk about.

The problem: I was recently in a breakout room with some students who finished an activity in less than a minute. Afterwards, they started talking about a recent vacation one of the students had been on (unfortunately, the lesson wasn’t about travel). While those students kept talking (albeit about something else), you might not be so lucky. Fast finishers might turn off their cameras and decide it’s time for a coffee refill.

The solution: Make sure fast finishers have something to do if they finish early. Set an extension when you give instructions. You can do this by saying, “If you have time…” or “After you’ve done that…” followed by the extension.

Let’s say you’ve asked students to look at some short texts about restaurants. They need to read these and decide which are restaurant reviews and which are not. You could tell students “After you decide which of these are reviews and which aren’t reviews, please

  • discuss who in your group has been to restaurants similar to those in the reviews.”
  • decide which of these restaurants you’d most like to go to.”
  • rank the restaurants from best to worst based on the reviews.”
  • find some positive or negative words in the reviews used to describe the restaurant.”

(Of course, one extension would be enough.)

Reason #6 The students don’t need to speak to complete the activity

The problem: I recently watched a lesson where the students did a gap fill in breakout rooms. The students in the same breakout room as me said nothing to each other. But why would they? Doing a gap fill task in a breakout room is as necessary as brushing your teeth in a breakout room. If students don’t need to talk to each other to get the task done, why use a breakout room?

The solution: Don’t do individual work in breakout rooms. Instead, ask students to turn off their mics and work by themselves in the main room. Or, put each learner in their own breakout room. It’s okay to do individual work in online classes.

Alternatively, if you want students to work together, give them a reason to speak to each other. For example, turn your gap fill into an information gap, where different learners need to fill different gaps by exchanging information with each other.

Reason #7: The students don’t see the point in the activity

The problem: If students don’t understand why they’re doing something, they won’t be motivated to participate. This is especially true when you ask students to do something new or unfamiliar. Learners might wonder why they’re …

  • being asked to focus on an area or pronunciation
  • learning vocabulary (which doesn’t look relevant to them)
  • doing an activity that looks like a game for kids.

The solution: Your students will be more motivated to participate if they know why they’re doing it. If your learners are preparing for a test, they need to understand why each activity will help them do better on the test. Even if your learners don’t have a specific goal in mind, they’ll be more motivated to take part if they understand the rationale behind your activities. Some ways to do this are …

  • before giving instructions, take a few seconds to explain to students how a new activity is going to help them.
  • explain that talking in groups helps students by giving them more speaking practice and opportunities to notice when they’re not understood.
  • show students different contexts that new words or phrases can be used in. Discourse markers in movie reviews can also be used in business emails and formal presentations.


Much of the learning that happens in classes happen when learners engage and interact with each other. If students don’t speak to each other, little learning is likely to transpire. Setting up breakout rooms might be one of the most important skills for online teachers to master. Use these tips and keep your ears open for … silence!


About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

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