Hints on breakout rooms, teams, and helping

This page is more targeted to online workshops, but could be relevant to in-person too.

As a helper, you are what can make a breakout room / group work very good or just normal. This is a lot of responsibility and isn’t easy, but it’s also not that complex: you aren’t expected to know everything, but instead focus on the flow. Our guidelines below should make it doable for everyone.

Here, we give some hints on making the most of breakout rooms. This is especially targeted towards helpers.

  • A helper has basic knowledge and keeps one breakout room going.

  • A expert helper/instructor is someone who knows material well, possibly an instructor. They tend to move around helping different groups.

Background: hierarchical workshops to scale

Traditionally, a workshops has instructors and helpers, but the capacity is limited by instructors, so we are limited to ~30-40 people at most. Then, we tried to scale to larger numbers: even up to 100 people. For this, we have to rely on helpers a lot more, to run a breakout room. A helper does not have to be an expert in the material, but should be able to keep things flowing.


We try to arrange people in teams which stay together for all breakout sessions on all days. This allows people to form a bond and get the rooms started sooner. We will try to keep you in the same breakout room as long as we can, but we give no promises and will rearrange as needed when people can’t attend.

We sometimes allow people to register as teams: you bring learners and a helper together, with the hope that you can keep working together afterwards.

General, in the main session

As an instructor, you first need to decide how to balance between the main room and breakout sessions.

  • Clearly say when a learner watches, when they type along, when they should work on something independently as an exercise.

  • You can try to plan the lesson so that more of it gets pushed to the breakout session, and the main room is mostly discussion. Since each room has a helper, this works a bit better than in in-person workshops

    • This doesn’t work so well for all lessons. Especially the more basic lessons don’t work so well

    • It also requires some care, and you should probably hop from room to room to monitor the progress.

Preparing for the breakouts (in the main room)

As an instructor, you need to clearly define what the tasks of each breakout session is (even if it is just “explore and discuss”). Online courses need more “meta talk” about how you expect things to go, since it’s not as easy to read the room or fill in expectations later (distractions, hard to communicate to breakout rooms after opened).

  • Clearly say what the tasks of the breakout session will be.

  • Put that task and a link to the part of the lesson in the hackmd.

  • Clearly say how long each breakout session will be (make sure it’s long enough)

  • Clearly say if things in the future will depend on this exercise (is someone completely lost if they don’t make it to the end. Halfway?)

  • Try to make breakout sessions longer:

    • imagine a 5 minute overhead for each session, getting people there, deciding who does what, acquainted with what they need to do, and debugging problems.

    • 10 minutes is quite short, 20 minutes is best.

    • Can you say less and let people discover it for themselves?

As a helper, if anything is unclear to you, it is very unclear to others. Speak up and ask!

Helpers in breakout rooms

As a breakout room helper, your main task is to keep people talking and interacting, understand their difficulties, and encourage them to work on the exercises together.

  • You can always start by greeting people and asking how the lesson is going

  • Encourage people to turn on cameras

  • You can use chat within breakout rooms: Chat to “Everyone” in a breakout room only means people in that room.

  • There are several strategies below. Combine as needed - read the room and see what they want, but do provide encouragement to do something.

  • If you need extra help, write it in the HackMD, someone should be watching it and relay it to the host. Other helpers will try to visit your rooms periodically, anyway.

  • Watch the time and try to keep things moving. If some debugging takes to long, it’s reasonable to ask for another helper who might have seen the problem.

    • If any one problem takes too long, it’s OK to say “we don’t have time, let’s come back”

    • Or, ask for an expert helper to come by and maybe answer quickly, or break off to work on a solution.


Example of HackMD during a breakout session. a) clear description of topics of the exercises. b) breakout room status. c) as always, questions at the bottom.

There are several strategies you can use to run your breakout room:

Strategy 1:

  • Helpers ask someone to share the screen and go through the exercise.

  • You can encourage the others to guide the one who is sharing the screen. Or let the person go on her/his own pace.

    • I joke “The person who shares the screen has the easiest job, since the rest of us guide you.”

      • This might go against the CodeRefinery’s code of conduct. The wording and the joking might cause some people feel inferior. So, I recommend not to do so! Please others comment about what they think about this.

  • Try to alternate who is sharing the screen for each session.

  • When someone has an issue, of course you switch screen share to them and maybe even continue from there

Strategy 2:

  • Everyone does the exercises themselves, and once someone has a question, encourage them to share the screen and you discuss.

  • If everyone is active, this can be good, but there is a risk that no one starts off.

Strategy 3:

  • You can also share the screen if no one is willing to.

  • It might be good to give learners some lead first, and use this only if no one volunteers.

Common problems

  • One learner asks very many questions, ends up monopolizing all of the time. Other learners are left without help, and the whole group may not get the exercises done

    • Call an expert helper to the room. They should be circulating, so let them know to spend some more time

    • It can be very hard to say “no”, but it’s more important to have balance than answer every question you are asked. If you need to say no, you can try things such as “I’m sorry, but in order to finish we need to go on now. We can keep working on it later - would you like to watch?”

  • There is some sort of problem that ends up taking a lot of time

    • Work on it for a minute or two.

    • Ask for an expert helper to drop by, by writing in the HackMD. Nothing wrong with this.

Expert helpers

There’s not much difference between a helper and expert helper, but we envision this role standing by and jumping into rooms when there’s a difficult problem.

  • Sometimes, you wait around for a problem that needs your attention. But it’s better to be proactive and go into the rooms yourself and check them out. Talk to the organizers/instructors to see which you should do.

  • You aren’t assigned to particular breakout room, but you can switch between them (but it’s not obvious how):

    • To do this, you do get assigned into one room initially. Join that room. After you are in the room, click on “Breakout Rooms”, and then Join to switch to a different room of your choice.

    • You also always have the option “Leave breakout room” (if in a room) or “Join your assigned room” (if in main room and assigned one).

  • Your role is to switch between breakout rooms and check up on them.

    • e.g. join room 1, take a look/ask how it is, then join room 2, then 3, then back to 1, and repeat.

    • Of course, stay in one longer, if it’s needed.

    • Make a note of any important questions to be asked in the main room afterwards.

  • Try to divide up the breakout rooms between the staff, and try to join and catch up with the same rooms (this promotes familiarity).

    • E.g. A rotates between rooms 1-3, B gets rooms 4-7, C gets rooms 8-11.

  • Make sure to watch the HackMD for helper requests, this could help you decide which room to jump to next. Comment when you are heading there.

Concrete example for an expert helper’s time:

  • I join breakout room 5 randomly. I spend 15 seconds watching, then ask if things are going OK. If everything is good, I move on within a minute since I am not needed (if there is a good break, I’ll ask “everything OK? good, see you around.”). If there are questions that I can help with, I answer them. If they seem to be struggling, then I will make a note in the HackMD and stay a while longer and watch/help.

Common issues and solutions

  • A room is very slow, the person sharing the screen is working quite slowly.

    • Kindly suggest that you or someone else take over and go through it faster

    • Yes, this is hard to say nicely

  • No one wants to take initiative and screen share

    • If you think everyone is confident enough, this can be OK

    • But especially at the beginning of the workshops, you can share your own screen and go along with people.

  • Someone is having trouble installing software

    • “Perhaps we can take a look at this after the workshop? We try to make sure everything is installed beforehand, but “