Training of trainers – NFL and interactive methods in Youth work – ACHIEVE

Lesson 28 – Debriefing Experiential Learning Exercises – text

text lesson

Good training exercise design is about providing an engaging experience for the participants. Experiential learning exercises have been used in various fields from indoor training courses to outdoor adventures and many more for decades. Worldwide research from these fields demonstrates the importance of including debriefing activities to help the learners/participants consider what was learned and how that learning can be connected to previous learning and experiences in their own practice. The purpose of this professional description for trainers is to explore some of these models of debriefing and to present a variety of methods that trainers and facilitators can use to include debriefing in their training exercises.


In line with the shift from traditional to progressive training (or any type of education), there has been a shift in what is considered to be good exercise design. Traditional exercises are focused on asking a series of questions in order to gain an in-exercise reward. These exercises function more as assessment tools, but do little to inspire or teach participants. The experiential learning model is based on using simulations or other activities that teach through having participants do something instead of demonstrating knowledge about something. For example, a traditional leadership exercise may ask participants facts about leadership styles or tasks, while an experiential learning exercise may put participants in the role of a leader in a specific – mostly abstract – situation called in to assist with the investigation of a team-conflict where the player explores proper or wrong reactions through experimentation. These experiential spaces allow for play and risk-taking and encourage learners to continue exploring the topic outside of the exercise. Models of experiential learning military exercises, outdoor adventure experiences, and corporate training all include the debriefing as part of experiential learning activities.

John Dewey, one of the most influential thinkers in educational theory, argued that education is the combination of experience and reflection. This theory has been embodied in the concepts of experiential exercises and simulations through techniques known as reviewing or debriefing that encourage learners to mentally process the experience.

People don’t learn from experience; they learn from reflecting on their experience.
Sivasailam Thiagarajan

If we look at the trainings delivered in youth work by many “trainers”, experiential educational exercises do not include a debriefing component or it is not delivered properly. At the end of the experience, the exercise simply ends and the next will come. These programs are rather immitation or just fun events than competency development training courses. Participants can enjoy them, but what will they learn from it – especially if we agree with Thiagarajan’s statement above. Focus on debrief – the exercise is only a tool to create a situation you can debrief with participants. If these experiential exercises do not contain any debriefing activities, then a significant opportunity to create a meaningful and educational experience is lost.

The importance of debriefing

There are two assumptions behind the importance of debriefing – that the activity affected the participant(s) in a way that requires further consideration and that there is a process needed to help the participant through that consideration.

If one goal of the experiential exercise is to create a meaningful learning experience, then if that goal succeeds, these assumptions will hold true. Based on the statement of an article, called Debriefing Experiential Learning Exercises: A Theoretical and Practical Guide for Success published in Journal of Management Education in 1998 debriefing for training activities should “integrate experiences with concepts and applications that are transferable to settings outside the classroom”. These processes “encourage the learner to reflect, describe, analyze, and communicate what they recently experienced”. The result of the debriefing process is that participants discover meaningful connections between the activity and their own lives (working practice), thus increasing the learning that occurs from an experiential exercise.

The debrief is critical because it helps learners explore what went on, talk about their experiences, develop insights, reduce negative feelings about aspects of the activity and connect the activities to their every day situations. A simulation or training exercise that goes poorly can still be a good learning experience with an experienced trainer/facilitator taking the time to debrief the activity appropriately. Similarly, even if the experiential educational exercise is not as successful for a group as was hoped, debriefing exercises can help the participants still gain something from the experience. Based on our own experiences, unsuccessful exercises provide much better basis for learning than the successful ones. Do not be afraid as a trainer if the group misses the goal, they will get out more!

Models of debriefing

There are a number of models of debriefing that have been presented and refined over the years. One model presented in starts with Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy and argues that debriefing that starts too high up on the taxonomy can fail. Instead, this model starts with activities focused on having learners discussing what happened in the event, which is based on the Knowledge and Comprehension level. After this, the facilitator encourages participants to explore how the group performed in the event, which comes from the Application and Analysis level. Next, the participants discuss other potential solutions to the challenges during the Synthesis portion of the process. Finally, in the Evaluation and Opinion stage, learners are ready to discuss how well they did with the activity.

Another well-known model by David A. Kolb leads learners through several stages from experiencing to learning. The first stage focuses on what the learners felt and experienced during the event. The second stage introduces other points of view by engaging an individual’s experiences with the experiences of others. The third stage has the learners relate the concepts in the activity to previously learned concepts at the training and consider how the activity can be expanded. The fourth stage focuses on enabling users to make a connection of the activity to the real world. This then can lead to a growing desire to have more experiences, which starts the cycle of experiential learning anew.

Roger Greenaway further refined this model to make it easier to trainers and facilitators to remember and apply (can be called 4 E model). His four-stage active reviewing sequence starts with Experience, where learners reflect and discuss the activities that occurred. The next stage is Express, where the learners consider the emotions that they felt during the process. Examine comes next in this model, where learners are encouraged to mentally detach from the experience to consider, more holistically, what happened and how well everything went. Finally, the Explore phase has participants thinking about the future and how the activity can connect back into the reality.

Sivasailam Thiagarajan brings together ideas of these models and extends them his popular debriefing model. There are six stages to his debriefing process after a simulation or experiential learning activity. First, the learners explore how they feel after the activity. Many activities can involve stress, conflict, or negative situations, so it is important to allow the learner to express these feelings. Second, the group explores what they recall as happening as part of the activity. Third, the participants explore what they learned during the activity. Fourth, the learners tie that learning to their own experiences from the real world or other things they have learned before. Fifth, the learners consider what happened and how what they learned might apply in a different context. Sixth, the learners plan out their next steps.

All of these models point to key activities that need to take place after an experiential activity, which are description, analogy/analysis, and application.

Comment on self-facilitation — delivering the debriefing by someone from the group. The literature review in reports various attempts at self-assessment with mixed results, although a common pattern of success centres on the use of self-assessment tools. Therefore, this concept of expert-created tools that help a learner assess their own performance through reflection is an important one in developing debriefing tools facilitated by the educational exercise. We can state, external trainer can manage the process far better than the group itself or someone from the group.

Applying debriefing models

In the typical training group, it is up to the trainer to debrief the use of an exercise, simulation or activity. If presented appropriately, this debriefing helps the participants deconstruct the activity and then connect it into their mental models. Without this debriefing time, the effectiveness of the activity may be greatly diminished, as some learners will see the activity as a stand-alone event and not properly connect it to other aspects of the class.

Comment on E-learning – Most e-educational exercises and simulations do not include a debriefing as part of the exercise. Some of them will include knowledge-based assessments, such as quiz, to test learning, but these are not the same as a proper debriefing activity.

Debriefing activities do not have a “right” answer, and are instead used to help learners explore and express their feelings about an experience.

Changing the Stage

In talking about debriefing of e.g. outdoor exercises presented the importance of having the debriefing in a different physical place from the activity. The reason for doing this is so that the focus can move from a state of action to a state of reflection. When considering this from an exercise perspective, it means that the debriefing process needs to be in a different exercise mode or in-exercise space. The underlying concept is that the learner needs to mentally step back from the space where the activity has taken place in order to reflect upon the experience and connect it to his or her life.

One challenge is to present these activities in a way that is separate from the exercise, so that the group can mentally step out of the situation and engage with the debriefing, but still presenting them in a way that is engaging so that the participant does not just quit the exercise. One method of doing this is to change the reality that the learning is engaged with within the exercise. For example, if the group is exploring concepts of Safety through a hospital case setting, the debriefing could take place in the setting of the director’s office or doctors’ meeting room. If the activity was out in the field of Crisis public speaking, the debriefing could be with a journalist who is now reporting on the story. Another method is to break the exercise with an “instructor” character that introduces the activity and appears throughout the exercise to lead debriefing activities.

Once the new stage has been set for the debriefing activities, designers of experiential educational exercises can select from different debriefing ideas as a starting point upon which to build a cohesive set of activities. No matter which debriefing methods are selected, the key underlying concepts are having the learner describe what happened, asking them to analyze their performance, and encouraging them to talk about how this experience could be applied to the real world.

Expressing Feelings and Describing Activities

In any experiential activity that could be emotionally charged for the participant(s), it is important to allow him or her to be able to express those feelings. If emotions are strong – which is positive in a training situation – then the person will have a hard time working through other aspects of the debriefing process. One way to help the person express his or her emotions is with an emotion timeline. This timeline can consist of the significant milestones in the activity, and a set of icons representing different emotions. The learner can then drag icons to different parts of the timeline and annotates what aspects of the activity created those feelings. This debriefing exercise will help the participant see how his or her feelings changed over the course of the activity.

A traditional method of reflecting is to have the learner record both feelings and activities through a diary. This diary (journal) could be integrated into the exercise, or could be a component that is printed before the exercise begins and used alongside the exercise. Providing no context within to write can lead to brilliant insights or meandering thoughts; it will be more effective as a debriefing to provide journaling guidance. A log is a journal where the learner records findings, emotions and his or her own reflections and insights. At the end of the experience, the person can look back at the log to reflect upon highlights. In a similar vein, the critical incident journal (in safety topics) is used for the learner to reflect in-depth about key points during the experience.

One method of inspiring reflection is through creating screen captures that represent critical moments in the activity. A more sophisticated method is to take photos or even video shots from the actual exercise with the participant’s character in it, showing his or her successes and failures. The learner can then either be shown these one at a time or in small groups and then is asked to select one and reflect upon what was going on and how he or she was feeling at that moment.

Exploring What was Learned

One technique in debriefing is a partnered reflection, where pairs of learners work through the debriefing experience with each other. In a single-player experiential exercise, some of this can be done with a simulated partner. The learner reviews the performance of one or more “partners” and assesses that performance and compares that performance to his or her own. This will force the participant to think more about what makes for a good performance and consider how different people might approach the same task.

Another method for self-reflection and assessment is to ask the person to rate his or her learning on a series of specific outcomes or questions. The rating could be used with a simple 1-5 or 1-10 scale, where 1 is “I feel that I didn’t learn anything” and a 5 or 10 is “I feel that I learned a lot.” After answers of 1 or 10, a follow-up question can be asked to probe further. The other advantage of this method is that trainers can look at the results of these questions to learn about how the participants perceive the effectiveness of the activity.

Relating to other Experiences or prior Learning

If the exercise is made up of a series of activities, each which builds upon the past, then one strategy is to take a break from the activity between sections and ask the member of the group to reflect upon what they he or she learned and how his or her success was built upon what they have previously learned. This can also work within the aforementioned journal structure, where the person reflects upon the past entries and then continues the journal.

To have the learner reflect upon how this activity relates to prior life and educational experiences, any of the earlier methods for having them document what he or she learned can be used as a starting point for another debriefing activity. For each important situation documented earlier by the participant, a follow-up question can be asked to have people reflect upon other things they learned or experienced in the past that helped them deal with that situation in the activity.

Consider how to Apply Learning to other Contexts

One opportunity to explore how to apply learning elsewhere comes after asking the user about previous situations. A follow-up exercise is to then ask participants to think about other situations in life where what they learned may be valuable or past situations that the learner was in where the knowledge gained from the exercise would have been useful. A different approach is to ask the person about what types of other people would find these topics valuable. Rather than just list other people, the learner can be encouraged to write a fake e-mail to either a real or fictional person convincing him or her that this learning activity would be valuable.

Another method of having the group think about how lessons learned can apply elsewhere is to put them in the role of an exercise designer. Learners are asked to think about an exercise idea that would take the lessons taught in the activity they just completed and allow someone to learn how to apply those lessons into a new environment. By providing the participant with a variety of icons to drag into an exercise design document, the learner’s creativity can be jostled in directions different than a text-only document would provide.

A simpler, but less engaging, way to get people to think about other contexts for the learning is to ask the person to select three-five situations from a long list of pre-determined situations where the learning would be useful. The learner’s goal is to select the five most commonly selected situations by other participants where this learning would be useful. As they select situations, they learn how many other participants selected that situation. This will provide them with a wide variety of things to consider outside of what they might come up with on their own.

Planning next Steps

One way to help learners think about what next steps to take is through picture analogies. The group can be presented with a set of inspirational images and is asked to choose which one represents how he or she will take what was learned here and continue with it. After selecting an image, he or she will then record why that image was meaningful. It can also be a nice touch for the learner to see reasons from other learners who selected the same image to learn other reasons. This provides a connection to other group members who have done the activity at another time.

Another activity for thinking about the future is to have each participant write a fan letter to him or herself a year in the future. This letter should talk about the experience, what was learned, and how the learner applied what was learned to his or her life. Instead of a letter, this could be a video that the learner records to a future self. This letter can then be e-mailed to the person a year or some months later.

Simulating a Group

One of the powerful aspects of debriefing is that it allows each participant to take what he or she internalized from the activity, share it with others, and learn from others. In several of the activities listed here, some of the influence of other participants, either real or simulated, is integrated into the activity. While challenging, it can be quite valuable to bring in other viewpoints and to let the person know that his or her thoughts will be shared with others.


By including more debriefing activities in an experiential exercise, the learning experience can be more effective. These debriefing elements in exercises can also assist trainers wanting to use these exercises as at-home supplements to classroom lessons by ensuring that the participants go through the critical debriefing process. While the trainers and courseware designers can greatly benefit from seeing the results of the debriefing, it is important to ensure that participants know how their debriefing will be used.

Any debriefing should focus on at least three elements – what was done in the activity, how well the activity worked for the group, and how the learning could be applied. It is important that there be a shift in the exercise space between the experience and the debriefing activity so that the participant can mentally shift from doing to reflecting. Providing some way for learners to engage with each other in a synchronous or asynchronous way will lead to a richer learning experience. The result of a successful debriefing is that both the participant and also the trainers gain much more out of the original exercise.

Based on abstracts from D. Kolb, S. Nicholson, J. Dewey, R. Greenaway and S. Thiagarajan

Acknowledgement of above article is made on an “await claim” basis. The copyright holder has not been traced. Any information enabling us to contact the copyright holder would be appreciated


The training program “Training of Trainers” is an educational product that is currently missing in the partner countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania. Due to the early stage of development of the youth sector and youth work in these countries the educational materials aimed at non-formal learning are still limited and insufficient. The lack of adequate educational framework for training of youth workers in the field of formal education leads to inefficient use of the capacity of professionals.

This course fills a gap in the youth sector, namely the need of methodologies for the preparation of trainers, who are able to train youth workers. This course will set the basis for the preparation of teams of trainers of youth workers. The course will serve the goal of development of youth work in the participating countries and other interested parties. A large number of youth workers can be trained according to the methodology at national and international level to use and promote non-formal learning as a tool to enhance the realization of young people in the labor market and increase their social cohesion.

0.00 average based on 0 ratings

5 Star
4 Star
3 Star
2 Star
1 Star