Last updated March 24, 2023

If you have started teaching online and are now faced with the issue of how to continue running team activities and games in the class, do not worry! You can easily run virtual team-building activities and games in online classrooms pretty much the same as you would offline.

All you need to do is use what are called ‘ Breakout Rooms’ and to use certain tools and techniques and in this post, I will explain everything you need to know. It is not as hard at all as you might at first consider.

Using breakout rooms for providing group activities when teaching online

1. The Challenge of Using Activities, Team Building & Ice Breaker Games as an Online Trainer

When teaching online, your students are even more isolated than normal, and thus using group activities becomes even more relevant than ever.

As a teacher, freelance, or corporate trainer, I am sure you already appreciated the benefits when it comes to pedagogy (teaching methods) of making classes interactive and getting students engaged with the learning.

Team building games, ice breakers. and other activities help participants to:

  • learn in different ways
  • engage on a social level with their fellow students (and this makes learning most enjoyable and productive)
  • break up what otherwise might be a one-sided training session or lesson with just the teacher/trainer speaking non-stop.

Online the challenge is how do you physically, as it were, put students into small groups to work on group tasks? How exactly does this work in an online virtual classroom setting? Is it even possible?

YES is the answer and one of the very best examples and most commonly used ways to achieve holding group activities online is using what is known as ‘Breakout rooms’.

So let me explain everything you need to do.

2. How to Use Breakout Rooms in Zoom

It is surprisingly easy to use Breakout Rooms in Zoom and Zoom is arguably one of the best teleconferencing options available online, one of the most commonly used by online teachers and trainers, and is free for your students to connect to your lessons with. Zoom is the easy option (I will look at Skype and MS teams afterward) and inexpensive.

a) What Are Breakout Rooms

A breakout room is a virtual space so you can split up your online class and send them into smaller classrooms in groups. You can create as many breakout rooms as you want.

So imagine that you have 24 students or participants in your virtual class and that you want them to do an activity in groups of 6.

Virtual breakout rooms

You will create 4 breakout rooms and this you can do before the class so that these breakout rooms already exist. You might call them rooms One, Two, Three, and Four or you can call them whatever you want.

When it is time to do a group activity, you simply send the students off to their breakout room and so, in each room, they will discuss and do the activity, task, or game, in their group (of six in this example).

So in essence, you can run your training sessions, workshops, or online classes exactly the way you would offline, for the most part, when it comes to activities such as ice-breakers and team-building games.

As the host (teacher) you can hop into and see any of the breakout rooms at any time.

You can also choose when to bring all of the participants back to the main online classroom.

b) How Do I Set-up a Breakout Room

Assuming that you have already installed Zoom and are familiar with the basics of Zoom.

Note that to set up the Breakout rooms, you will need to be the account holder or have the full admin privileges for the Zoom account you are using to run the class.

You can create up to 50 breakout rooms so this is more than you are ever likely to really need and you can have up to 500 participants in one room.

To set up Breakout rooms take a quick look at this video.

c) Zoom Breakout FAQs

I get asked some questions a lot and so below are the answers to these questions:

i) What if someone joins the class late and students are already in breakout rooms?

It is not a problem at all. You can either pre-assign people to a breakout room before the class has started or you can assign the option for Zoom to randomly allocate students to a breakout room.

ii) How do I allocate students to a breakout room?

You can either allocate students to breakout rooms beforehand or during the lessons. Beforehand, I am sure you would agree, is generally the best option.

To pre-assign, go to ‘Meetings’ –> ‘Schedule a Meeting‘.

In the Breakout room setting, you can select to automatically assign students (Zoom call them ‘participants’) to be allocated.

This can be a great choice that will save you work and then will mean that your students are randomly allocated to a breakout room.

Allocating students to breakout rooms in Zoom
Allocating students to breakout rooms in Zoom

iii) Can I use Breakout Rooms in Skype or MS Teams rather than in Zoom?

At the time of writing (and I will update this post as things change so please feel free to email me if you know differently) there is no option in MS Teams or Skype for Business to have something like Zoom’s breakout rooms.

Breakout rooms though are possible on Cisco’s WebEx training platform and on Adobe Connect so, if you already use Webex or Adobe Connect for online teaching, then the basic concept for breakout rooms applies.

Online teaching guide PDF

3. How Do I Use/Run the Virtual Training Activities Once I Have Students in Virtual Groups?

You can put your students into mini and temporary virtual rooms so that they talk in their own groups. It’s a brilliant feature on Zoom and the other two platforms mentioned above!

So what next you might ask? How do you, for example, run one of the FREE training activities on this site or the team building and course activities that come with the off-the-shelf training course materials? Or you might have your own activities that you often use. Good question.

Step A – Make Sure Students Have Files Before-hand

If the activity involves a set of questions (such as the FREE Communications Quiz Activity), I recommend sending the document by email or making it available to download online for the students and participants, beforehand.

Ideally, the students will not have read the tasks beforehand. So including a cover and including a few other things such as online classroom etiquette can make for a good document to send them.

In fact. providing participants (students) an agenda beforehand is always a great idea for online teaching so you might decide to include the activity details at the back of the agenda document.

We include these files in our students’ handbooks and/or as a separate file in our training course materials packages (see the What’s Included Page).

Step B – Make Use of These Online Teaching Tools

We have written a detailed post on the Best Online Tutoring Tools You Can Use and you can read it here. So you might find that really useful! 🙂

Some tools though that you will certainly want to consider using are:

We explain all about all of these in our ‘Online Trainer Course‘.

Step C – Use Activities Designed for Online Teaching

There are tonnes of icebreakers, team building, and other group activities you can do online and we have listed 21 FREE-to-use icebreakers and team-building games. See our post

The 21 activities above can all be used in virtual classrooms!

Step D – Allowing More Time Online for Responses

One tip worth mentioning is that you will need to approach how you teach online slightly differently from in a real-life classroom, in that you will need to allow participants more time.

Tip 1: Online, I have found that it can take slightly longer for someone to respond or to react. Allow slightly more time when using activities in online teaching, and be ready to unmute them if they have a question (if they are on mute) whilst you are speaking.

Tip 2: Allocate an extra 5 – 10 minutes the first time you use activities with a certain group of participants as they may need some guidance the first time they use these technologies and tools.

Be patient when starting and you will find over time that you can easily include activities in your online classes!

4. Breakout Room Sizes

When allocating participants who need to work together into breakout rooms when teaching online, you have two main options.

i) Auto-Randomly Allocate Participants to a Breakout Room Before Each Activity

If you will need to sometimes have participants work in pairs and then in groups of 4 and then maybe 12 people (in other words the size of the breakout rooms will change for different activities), you might as well automatically let the program such as Zoom randomly allocate participants to a room.

Adding new rooms as you teach is technically possible to do, but it can be messy, especially if you need to focus on teaching at the same time.

ii) Allocate Participants to a Breakout Room Before the Class and Keep Group Sizes the Same for All Activities

It is more practical to keep the rooms all the same size, rather than switching between rooms of 2 and 4 people if you want to pre-allocate participants to breakout rooms.

Groups of 4 can be a good number for most virtual classroom activities and games.

So you will want to either automatically randomly put participants in breakout rooms before each activity OR prepare the breakout rooms before you start teaching each session and pre-allocate users to a breakout room.

If you use this option though, then the easiest way is to keep all group sizes the same i.e. 4 people in each room for each activity.

Dr Valeria Lo Iacono