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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Breakouts To Energize Brains and Boost Achievement

Special Article

When to Use Breakout Groups?

There are many times when we want students to interact in informal, brief pairs, triads, or groups of four or more. Breakouts can be used before formal base teams are ever formed in the classroom. Students are sitting as individuals at their desks or as individuals in a lecture hall. The teacher simply calls for a StandUp–HandUp–PairUp or one of the other breakout structures, has students interact in their breakout groups using an interaction structure, and then has students return to their individual desks or seats. Once base teams have been formed, breaking out from the team and working with classmates is a welcome change of pace. Students leave their teams to work with others, later to return with fresh energy to their base teams.

Interaction in breakout groups is powerful at almost any time in a lesson.

Lesson Set. For the anticipatory set of a lesson we may have students breakout and interact with others to share prior knowledge on the lesson content, or to verbalize what they most want to learn in the lesson. By having students interact to share prior knowledge on a topic, they activate dendrites that can link the new knowledge. Associating new knowledge to prior knowledge improves comprehension and retention of content. To motivate students and prepare them to learn we may provide some intriguing bits of information on the lesson topic. We kindle their curiosity, and then ask them to interact over what they would like to learn. Students who verbalize a desire to learn are more motivated to learn. A simple Timed Pair Share to have students express what they know about the topic and what they would like to learn boosts motivation and retention.

Lesson Wrap. At the opposite end of the lesson we use breakouts into pairs, triads, or groups of four to have students verbalize what they have learned in the lesson. Students remember more what they say than what they are told so getting students to verbalize their learning at the end of a lesson increases retention. Having students find a partner and then do a RallyRobin to recall important points of the lesson cements learning.

When Energy Dips. Energy dips in a classroom after lunch, after prolonged silent work, during a long lecture, or when the content is not developmentally appropriate, either too easy or too difficult. When energy drops it is time for a breakout. Movement structures like Traveling RallyQuiz, or Mix-Pair-Group pump up the energy. To optimize learning we need to manage energy level, and breakouts are a powerful tool to re-energize the class.

Lesson Transitions. Getting up and interacting with others can mark the transition from one activity to another. Students can breakout to interact over what has just been taught and learned, and then sit down with fresh attention for the new content.

During Small Group Instruction. While the teacher works with a small group of students in the class, say a reading group or a group that needs special assistance, the teacher can have the rest of the class interact in breakout groups. Breakout groups may work in centers or they may practice the content using Quiz-Quiz-Trade or Traveling RallyQuiz.

Practice. Once students have mastered a skill in their teams, we have them breakout to practice the skill with a classmate, cementing the learning. Students can breakout into pairs and do RallyCoach or Quiz-Quiz-Trade to practice their newly acquired skill. The research on retention is clear: we want to distribute practice. Teachers who often have students interact in random pairs, or triads, better retain the content because we are distributing practice. By practicing a skill in more than one context, with more than one partner, we increase the probability the skill will be used later. This principle of transfer applies to social skills as well as academic skills. If a student has acquired a new social skill with their teammates, say paraphrasing, having them practice in breakout groups allows them to transfer the skill to new situations, and increases the likelihood the skill will be used as they interact with others. The probability of transfer increases with the number of different situations in which a skill is practiced.

Processing. During a lecture we can stop and have students breakout from their base teams to form pairs or triads to verbalize their thinking about the content, using structures like Timed Pair Share, Timed Pair Interview, or RoundRobin. As students verbalize their thinking they are moving the content from short- to long-term memory, increasing dramatically the probability of later recall.