Horseshoe Groups: Merging Two Buzz Groups To Increase Audience Discussion


Lectures are a barrier to the listener’s thinking.

The constant one-way transfer of information is like a dripping faucet. The information keeps coming and coming and coming.

And that constant drip of new data, facts, figures and info keeps the brain overwhelmed with new information. The listener is faced with a choice: listen to the new information or think about what they just heard. You can’t listen to the lecture and think about that information at the same time. You either do one or the other.

Small group and peer discussions foster learning and retention in ways the lecture never could. Adding peer discussion to a lecture is the winning formula that increases learning and thinking.

Creating Horseshoe Groups For Discussion

Professor Donald Bligh talks about using horseshoe groups in his book What’s The Use Of Lectures, first published in 1971. The horseshoe group is a useful method to alternate formal instruction with audience discussion.

A 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 people. Groups larger than six should divide into two smaller groups for discussions.

Remember, the larger the group, the shorter the time each person will have to talk or discuss. You want to give each person adequate time to contribute to the group as well as articulate their thoughts.

According to education researcher Jane Abercrombie, discussion groups are arranged so that each member may interact face-to-face with every other member. With horseshoe groups, people sit in a horseshoe arrangement around a table. Chairs are arranged in a C or U shape with the opening facing either the center or the front of the room.

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

The opening at each table allows for focus to move from small group discussion back to the presenter and vice versa. The opening also allows the presenter to easily join each group to listen and provide feedback as needed. If the presenter does join a group, he or she should crouch or sit in a chair at the opening. The presenter should always try to be at eye level with the group’s members. Standing above them can kill discussion and represents authority or exclusivity. Subconsciously, the group may think, “Oh, the presenter is here now. He/She will have the answers. Time to be quiet. We don’t have to think or discuss anymore.”

Why Use Horseshoe Groups?

Alternating a formal lecture or presentation with horseshoe groups gives the audience time to digest, think, reflect and process the information they just heard. It also gives individuals an opportunity for feedback from their peers regarding their thinking.

Horseshoe groups promote analytical thinking, creativity, evaluation, assessment and application of the information to specific challenges or situations. Presenters should intentionally and carefully consider what questions to ask to cultivate thinking in a specific direction. The more the participants can talk about the practical application of the information, the more likely they are to consider using it in their work.

How can you use horseshoe groups for your next conference? What are some ways to encourage people to participate in small group discussions?

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  1. Scott melnick says:

    Why show a picture of tables with nine participants if six is optimum?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Good question! Thanks for asking.

      Many conference organizers are forced with maximizing the space for attendees. So showing pod seating that allows for nine people will be common for those with larger conferences.

      As stated in the post, when you have a group that’s larger than six, such as nine shown in the illustration, divide them into two groups. In the case of nine, have four at one end talk with each other and five at the other end talk with each other.

      Then you have efficient use of space to accommodate as many people as possible and can still benefit from the horseshoe group model.

  2. McDonald’s corporate training center actually has a few rooms with this exact configuration. as well as flipchart/monitors at the end of each table (way from the presenter) and sliding walls between horseshoes to give them a bit of sound barrier when the groups are really going at it. It’s one of my favorites rooms to present in.

    I also remember seeing a variation in Metropolis Magazine that I think was a suggestion for the classroom of the future. It was 4 horseshow groups but in the shape of an X with the open ends of the table all aimed to the center. The idea here was to really move the teacher/presenter into a roaming facilitator role by the very architecture of the room.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding those examples to the discussion. Great ideas to think about!

  3. Hi, Jeff! Thanks for bringing up this conversation. Room sets can add or detract significantly to the success of learning opportunities and its importance isn’t often considered. I’ve seen the value of the horseshoe many times in facilitating workshops in which the set-up is used…and can also attest to the need to keep groups to 4-6 people. The smaller groups enable conversation among everyone at the table. While I understand the need to max “butts in seats,” using a 9-person set means the people at one end won’t be talking to the people at the other end – the same thing that happens during banquets with people sitting at 8-, 10- or 12-person rounds. You talk only to the people on either side of you, not to those across the table.

    One point you made in this great post almost gets lost: that presenters should “intentionally and carefully consider what questions to ask.” I wouldn’t want your readers to overlook the importance of using these small groups purposefully. This room set isn’t magic on its own…the facilitator definitely must be intentional with how it is used. It’s suited to a wide variety of activity designs and learning methods beyond asking questions.

    For example, after a short bit of content (8-10 minutes), have groups do an activity that reinforces what they heard as they consider its application. Hearing the content, then doing something with it, then debriefing what happened, is right in line with John Medina’s Brain Rules #5, Repeat to Remember, and #6, Remember to Repeat. In that scenario, the content is repeated three times, helping transfer it from short-term to long-term memory, thus increasing the chances it will be retained.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes,yes,yes! Thanks for bringing additional attention to the importance of smaller groups and asking the right questions. Your comments should help conference organizers continue to improve the experience. Thank you for continuing the conversations.

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