The Role of Meet Sessions and Breakout Rooms in Creating a Doctoral Learning Community: A Sequential Mixed Methods Study

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date

Fall 11-1-2022


The problem of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) doctoral student attrition has led institutions to explore solutions to support doctoral students’ program completion. According to Tinto’s model of institutional departure, students’ social and academic integration must be addressed to increase retention. Additionally, Astin’s student involvement theory purports that the effectiveness of an engagement strategy is dependent upon the program’s ability to increase the amount of time and level of commitment of students. In VLE programs, personal interactions are limited. The purpose of this sequential mixed-methods study is to examine the perceptions of doctoral students and doctoral teaching faculty of weekly voluntary Zoom meet sessions utilizing breakout rooms in VLE doctoral programs. Data were collected from 1) 50 doctoral students (75.8%); 2) 31 (24.4% doctoral faculty teaching online; and 3) a focus group consisting of the Doctoral Students Association (DSA) leadership team. The results indicated that the implementation of a voluntary weekly meet session and the utilization of breakout rooms could facilitate the development of a DLC.


School of Education

Academic Department

Doctoral Studies

Publication or Event Title

Education Leadership Review


Volume 23


Number 1, Fall 2022

First Page

The terms Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Virtual Learning Course Management Systems (CMS), and Learning Management Systems (LMS) tend to be used interchangeably (Lopez, 2017), but the term VLE will be used in this paper to characterize a doctoral program at a private notfor-profit university in mid-west America. Based on a 10-year completion rate only 56% of students will complete their doctorate (Council of Graduate Schools, 2020), and program attrition rates in VLEs are often 10%-20% higher than residential programs (Heyman, 2010; Holder, 2007; Muljana & Luo, 2019; Terrell, Snyder, & Dringus, 2009). Smith (2010) documented that VLEs dropout rates across programs range from 40% to 80%. Despite documented high attrition rates across VLEs doctoral programs, little is still known about the reasons for student persistence and attrition (Castelló et al., 2017). Historically, higher education institutions have intentionally developed policies, procedures, and practices to support students, including structure, to help students actively engage in their program experience (Owolabi, 2018). Research shows that whilst students with higher levels of academic and social integration are more likely to be retained (Tinto, 1975), traditional online course engagement grounded on a unilateral teaching approach which is text based fails to develop a sense of community (Budhai & Skipwith, 2017). Kimbrel and Gantner (2021) argue that further research is needed to determine the specific impacts of instructional strategies and methods to increase student engagement and decrease loneliness of graduate students. The literature suggests that weekly meet sessions and the utilization of breakout rooms may enhance VLE student engagement as they: (1) are ideal for collaboration and dialogue; (2) can change the pace of the session; (3) provide a safe space for participants; (4) facilitate active dialogue due to small group numbers; and (5) enable the instructor to be present if appropriate to the task in hand (Chandler, 2016; Saltz & Heckman, 2020). Length of time in the breakout rooms can vary according to the task. An impetus to stay on task is that generally each group is required to report back to peers when together in the main room (Saltz & Heckman, 2020). Group membership can be preassigned, strategic, or random allowing students with similar research topics, academic needs or personal needs to be grouped together (Zoom Support, n.d.). The automatic random grouping ensures that doctoral students mix with each other outside their normal learning community. The purpose of this mixed methods study was to add to the sparse literature on effective VLE instruction in higher education at the doctoral level (Lougheed et al., 2012) by examining the perception of voluntary meet sessions in a VLE doctoral program by doctoral students and doctoral faculty. Further, the contribution of weekly meet sessions and the utilization of breakout rooms to the development of a Doctoral Learning Community (DLC) is explored. The paper begins by outlining the theoretical framework grounded on Tinto’s theory of retention and Astin’s theory of student involvement. Previous research related to the development of a VLE learning community is discussed. A rationale for the study’s methodology is given. This is followed by a review of the research findings. Finally, a concluding discussion includes possible next steps and limitations.

Last Page

Strengths and Limitations As far as we are aware, this is the first study to examine doctoral students and doctoral teaching faculty perceptions of voluntary weekly meet sessions and the utilization of breakout rooms in VLE doctoral programs. This mixed methods study led to a gain in complementary and rich data, providing a comprehensive picture of doctoral students learning experiences in meet sessions and breakout rooms and the development of a DLC. However, the study is limited by four factors: 1) data were collected via an online non-standardized survey; 2) the integration of doctoral student data was impacted by the unequal sample size (50 in the quantitative component; and 5 in the qualitative part); 3) the study focused on doctoral students who were enrolled in one of four VLE doctoral courses during the summer semester and were also at different points of their program; and 4)the recommendations and implications derived from this study may have limited application especially since research demonstrates different completion rates, time to completion, and program characteristics based on different disciplines (Golde, 2005). Implications For Future Research This study focused on doctoral student and doctoral teaching faculty perceptions of voluntary meet sessions in a VLE doctoral program, and the role of meet sessions and breakout rooms in contributing to the development of a DLC. Subsequent research is necessary to explore the influence of contextual enablers/barriers (e.g., nature of the institution, resources, structure, organizational culture) and those that are related to doctoral students and doctoral teaching faculty themselves (e.g., tenure/adjunct faculty, work structure, competing demands) when examing the role of meet sessions and breakout rooms in developing a DLC. Conclusion Implementation of a voluntary weekly meet session and the utilization of breakout rooms can facilitate the development of a DLC. Other VLE doctoral programs seeking to encourage DLC development could implement this andragogical strategy.


ISSN 1532-0723