Failure in Learning Part II: The Importance of the Debrief and Coaching

I previously wrote about the need to be able to fail in a safe learning environment. That can be in a software course or a course on people skills such as customer service. We do learn a lot from our mistakes.

An essential part of a learning environment that lets people fail - or any good learning environment, for that matter - is the debrief or review of activities. Noted learning expert Thiagi went so far as to say, "People don't learn from experience; they learn from reflecting on their experience." This rings true in my experience.

The core issue here is that activities need to be a learning experience, not just some sort of practice session. I like to ask participants what they learned from an activity. Over 35+ years of training I've found that participants often learn more than the instructional designer intended! Of course, many participants don't volunteer the information immediately and directly: they may need to be prompted with questions such as, "how did handling that type of customer make you feel?"

The debrief need not be a simple questioning of participants. It can take many forms. Sometimes the debrief for an activity can be another activity. Some instructors ask participants to write their thoughts in a journal, others ask participants to summarize their thoughts on a flipchart, index card, or projected screen. Hearing what others learned from the activity helps them gain the knowledge learned by others.

two women speaking in an office environment

How long should a debrief be?

In a way, this question is a bit like, "how long is a piece of string?". It takes as long as it takes. Some experts have suggested that the debrief take at least as long as the activity. That may be very good for a twenty or thirty-minute activity. Indeed, I have spent that long on activities of a similar duration.

Longer activities are a different matter. If participants spend 45 minutes or an hour on an activity, the debrief may not need to be anywhere near that long. When I design activities that long (in e.g. a software design course) I often build in checkpoints or reviews during the activity itself. That allows the participants to ensure they are on-track and following the learning path of the designer.

Is a debrief only for activities?

No. Or maybe "absolutely not!". I prefer to use debriefing techniques when reviewing any type of learning content. I ask participants at the start of each session in a multi-session course to share the highlights, interesting parts, and "aha" moments from the previous session. This helps them recall parts of the session as well as get them in the proper frame of mind for the new session.

An activity (learning game) is a good way of debriefing a "lecture" session. It can break up the intensity of the session and provide variety in learning.

One-on-one coaching

Another tool for helping participants get the most out of an activity is one-on-one coaching. While it may not always be possible due to constraints on time or the size of the learning group, it can be valuable when it is a viable option.

Consider an activity where participants perform real or simulated practice in a live environment. In that case, it might be good for the "trainer" or another person to discuss the activity with the participant. In a customer service activity, for instance, the participant may work in an actual customer-facing part of a company's business for a while such as a few hours or part of a day. Afterward, a coach, trainer, or job shadow can discuss the learner's actual behavior. Fans of Undercover Boss may be familiar with this.

Learning more about specific activities and processes for debriefing

You may notice that these references are all from Thiagi's website. It is not that he is the only expert on debriefing - and indeed the first citation is from someone else. I chose these because his explanations are specific and because I have had success with his advice.

It took me a while to learn how to do a meaningful debrief. Performing better debriefing techniques has surely helped me teach content to participants and to help them learn it more effectively.