Creating Buzz Groups To Add Audience Participation To Traditional Lectures


Lectures are good for sharing information.

They are not good for learning and getting listeners to think!

Nor are the good for getting listeners to remember and apply the information they hear. Audience discussion methods are more effective for learning than the lecture.

Lectures are the equivalent of distributing a report and asking people to read it. The scientific research about the ineffectiveness of lectures for education and learning abounds. Yet it is still the primary method used in most education programs.

If the goal of a lecture is audience learning and retention, then the lecture needs to be modified. A simple way to modify the lecture is to add time for hearers to discuss the information with each other one on one or in small groups. It’s best to break the lecture up into several segments and allow for

Buzz Groups

Here is one method to infuse lectures with life-saving, thought-provoking discussion that increases learning and retention.

Buzz Groups are small groups of two to six people that discuss a specific topic, especially that of a lecture. They can be used several times for short periods within a specific education program.

When used within the typical classroom seating, participants in alternating rows turn around to face those in a row behind them. If the room is a terraced theater, have groups of two or three members in the same row discuss the issues or problems. If someone or a pair is left alone at a table, have them join another group.

Adapted from Donald A. Bligh image of Buzz Groups in What's The Use Of Lectures.

The term “buzz” refers to the noise or buzz of the room as people discuss a topic during a program. If the topic is controversial or people have lots of emotion and energy around the topic, smaller groups work better. This allows each individual to develop their own thinking. It also allows for the listener to consider it and provide feedback.

Buzz Groups can be used for audience sizes of 30 to 3,000. When the audience is sitting in theater seating, have them turn to their right or their left and talk to their neighbor.

Encouraging The Introverts

One way to encourage introverts is to have individuals write down their thoughts or responses to a specific question. As individuals finish, have them share their thoughts with their neighbor.

Then Buzz Groups are introduced without official fanfare and a possible negative emotional response of fear of the unknown. This negates the possibility of resistance to interactivity without announcing that you are using a new instructional method.

Evidence: Buzz Group Discussions Work

Buzz Groups have been around for a long time. Professor Donald A. Bligh first wrote about Buzz Groups in What’s The Use Of Lectures in 1971.

Researchers Di Vesta and Smith (1979) showed that a typical 20-30 minute lecture that included three two-minute Buzz Group discussions interspersed throughout the lecture increased learning and recall. Students were tested two weeks later and recalled the main points of the lecture that were discussed.

When discussion was limited to before and after the lecture, researchers Di Vesta and Smith (1979) as well as Ruhl and Suritsky (1995) showed that it actually interfered with learning and recall was limited. The students could not recall the main points of the lecture.

The best method for learning and retention is to break up a 20 minute lecture with a minimum of three times to allow peer discussion.

Why are so many speakers afraid of adding audience discussion to their presentations? What are some other audience discussion techniques that you’ve experienced that increase learning and retention?

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  1. John Pollard says:

    Good stuff Jeff!

    Mazur from Harvard has some great insights on this as well. For those who are REALLY interested (meaning – willing to take some time), this link shows class results of incorporating this type of idea into the classroom.

    For hybrid events, I’m interested to see how we might use Google Hangouts or similar to encourage that same type of interaction between virtual attendees. Challenges exist, but I think we should be experimenting and looking for ways to make this happen. Above all, we need speakers who are willing to take the time and effort to explore this type of interaction.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Just having a text chat function enabled for remote participants helps with creating the same type of experience, learning and retention for hybrid events. That’s why it is critical to keep the live streaming experience active and not just passive listening!

  2. […] horseshoe group is a merging of two buzz groups. It usually has between four and twelve participants. The optimum size for a horseshoe group is six […]

  3. […] the audience to practice using the information they’ve heard. One easy way to do this is create short buzz discussions between neighbors on issues raised and the speaker’s questions. Education researchers Bassey […]

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