Debrief activities to anchor learning 

by | Jun 29, 2022 | Instructional Design

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” — John Dewey 

There are two great training books – Telling ain’t Training by Harold D. Stolovich and Training ain’t Performance by Harold D. Stolovich and Erica Keeps. They get at one of the core challenges with training. Designing great training requires more than presenting information. Delivering training that changes performance requires learning activities where participants can reflect on and discuss concepts and skills, and have the opportunity to practice. 

One of the challenges I experienced as a new facilitator and see in others is the skill of conducting learning activities. It sound’s like it should be straightforward, but it can be done poorly or effectively. When done poorly, participants are confused at the beginning and are unsure about what they should be doing. At the end of the activity, there is a lost opportunity if the experience isn’t connected clearly enough to the learning objective. When done effectively, you can see the lightbulb go off. It ‘clicks’ for participants, and they gain new insights and have improved skills to apply back on the job. This is what gives me the ‘rush’ when I’m facilitating.  

To position learning activities for success, think of them as stories – with a beginning, middle and an end. I’d like to focus on the end and how to debrief activities.  

Debriefing learning activities 

Including activities is an important part of learning design and facilitation because it provides the opportunity for participants to apply and practice concepts. If we stop at the activity, however, and we don’t make space for debriefing, we lose that opportunity for participants to learn from that experience. Debriefing is important for a few reasons: 

  • All people don’t learn equally well from active learning. Debriefing surfaces different insights which can help all participants identify what they learned in the activity. 
  • Activities often involve doing things. Debriefing enables putting pieces of things together so the meaning becomes clear. 
  • As the quote above suggests, learning comes from reflection. Reflecting on the interaction helps participants make concrete connections between the learning content and their experiences.  

Debrief Structure 

There are several models for debriefing learning activities.1 At a high level, they follow this structure:  

When you structure your debrief questions into these three areas, you will help participants translate their experience into learning that they can apply after the course. 

Tips for debriefing learning activities 

Here are some sample “What” questions to debrief learning activities. 

  • What’s your reaction? 
  • What insights did you gain? 
  • What themes surfaced in your discussion? 

Here are some sample “So what” questions to debrief learning activities. 

  • What does this tell you about _____________? 
  • How does this relate to the concept of __________ that we were discussing earlier? 
  • How does this shift your understanding of ______________? 

Here are some sample “Now what” questions to debrief learning activities. 

  • What can you take from this and apply to your work? 
  • What one thing from this can you apply right now? 
  • What from this will be difficult to apply? 

1 Blohm, J. M. (ed.) The Nasasaga Training Activity Book (2012) Pfeiffer. 

In case you missed it

I’ve shared some additional posts online. Here they are in case you missed them.  

  • Transfer of Learning part 1 – (link
  • Transfer of Learning part 2 – (link
  • Transfer of Learning part 3 – (link
  • Virtual Training Journey – why good learning design matters – (link
  • Elearning is good for – (link
  • Online is good for – (link

Training that Clicks book – I’m writing a book this year about virtual training. I’ve been posting about the process every Friday on LinkedIn. Follow this hashtag #bookbyhannah to learn about my journey.