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Breakout session

Breakout session

Breakout sessions in a learning context refer to a technique where subgroups are formed during a lecture-type event. Students are assigned to one breakout group (typically 2-4 groups are formed) and given instructions on what they need to do. Topics are assigned to each group (either the same or different topics). Examples of topics can include

  • discussing a case which is based on the topic of the lecture
  • students analysing their learning so far and defining additional learning needs or interest or
  • diversifying the topic of the lecture (e.g. a main lecture on clinical trials followed by break-out groups working on clinical trials in cancer, infectious diseases, rare disease or for vaccines. 

The break-out group can be student or teacher/facilitator lead, depending on the design of the break-out group. A break out group typically ends with reporting the results etc back to the entire class.

You will need


  • sufficient space for the groups to discuss without being disturbed by other groups
  • visual equipment for the reporting session (e.g. flipcharts and sufficient flipchart pens; post-it notes or a projector)

Benefits and limitations


  • break out group allow the diversification of a topic or catering for different knowledge levels of students
  • reporting back to the main session allows for individuals to practice their presentation skills
  • break-out groups are easy to set-up so can also be use for trainings delivered only once
  • reporting back session allows for groups to profit from each other or compare if they had similar or different ideas



  • break-out groups need sufficient space to discuss without being disturbed by other groups, so the number of groups will be limited by the room available
  • Instructor and/or facilitator need to move between groups to listen in and ensure that the instructions are understood
  • A dominant student could overshadow more reserved individuals

What do I actually do as an instructor/facilitator?

Preparation / before class

First you identify your intended learning outcome for using a break-out  (e.g.  to discuss a case, students defining additional learning needs or diversifying the topic of the lecture). An important decisison is also whether to do a student-lead break-out session or a facilitator/instructor led one. In the latter case you have to ensure that competent instructors/facilitators are available.  You then design the assignment(s) for the groups and the reporting session. When planning the reporting session think about how to do it so that the groups will profit from each other. You will also need to decide how much time to allocate for the breakout and the reporting session. Keep in mind to allow some time to form the groups, for the groups to re-locate and also some time for social chat before the group starts the activity. Check whether the groups will need additional resources (such as articles, cases) to complete their assignment. It usually helps to visualise the assignment, the time slots and other instructions (e.g. on a flipchart or as handouts).

Implementation / during class

You introduce the assignment(s) to the trainees. Make sure that the assignments are well understood as otherwise you will need to re-explain to the different groups and thus reducing the effective working time. A method that might help you in clarifying the assignment is to do a quick paired discussion (link to paired discussion - Heiko's method in practice) Explain that the groups should first decide who will take notes and who will present in the reporting session and who will be the time keeper. Once the break-out groups have started you (and facilitators if available) should wander around to make sure that the assignments are understood and that the students work towards the desired outcome, that the time frame given to complete the assignment is feasible and to support reserved individuals in contributing. To support the forming of groups, it might be helpful to have students count 1-2-3, 1-2-3.... to assign the groups. This can reduce the time for the pairs to find each other as well as avoiding that everybody turns to the most popular participants.

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