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Memorable Debriefs

eLearn Magazine just published an opinion piece I wrote about debriefing learning activities and events.  It started like this:

After a two-day marketing conference I attended recently, a colleague asked cordially: “So, what are your top takeaways?”

I was exhausted from sitting, listening, and contemplating how I could apply all I learned to my own practice. My brain was so overloaded; I couldn’t quickly gather my thoughts to provide an answer.

And yet, as a learning consultant, I know that articulating “next steps” is the most critical question to ask and answer, to ensure that the time spent in learning leads to changes in either thinking or behavior. After all, that’s the point, right?

The article identifies two steps needed to get closure on an activity:

  1. The Debrief—a time for processing and discussion whereby you review, experience and extract key learning points.
  2. The Commitment—when you consciously make the effort to commit the information to memory and, if appropriate, take action in implementing changes.

The Debrief

The optimal method you employ for debriefing a learning event will certainly depend on your topic. Presented here are a range of ideas that will likely get your creative juices flowing. Thanks to those who submitted suggestions via LinkedIn.

  • What? So What? Now What?
    The focus of these questions is: What have you learned? So what, what is the significance of the learning? Now what are you going to do or change going forward?
  • Start. Stop. Continue. Change.
    On the last page of the workbook have attendees write four words: start, stop, continue, change. After the training ask participants to go to that page and respond to those four prompts: Based on their learning what are they going to start doing and stop doing? What will the continue doing? How will they change up what they’re doing?This helps them focus on what they’ve learned and what they’re actually going to do when they get back to work or home. [Submitted online by Dian Anderson]
  • Closing Circle
    An end-of-the-school-day ritual whereby the teacher sets aside 10 minutes for some calm reflection on the day. The rules are: everyone takes part; they come empty-handed, without backpacks or coats; they are asked to reflect on the day and set goals for the next day, celebrate efforts and accomplishments, and; join together in a playful cheer or song. [Januszka, D.L. and Vincent. K. “Closing Circle,” Responsive Classroom. February 2011]
  • Works Well. Do Differently.
    This is a useful model for team exercises and soft skills experiential learning. With these two simple questions, facilitators can help their groups to explore what was working and where they can do better. The key is that it frames this self-critical exercise in very positive language.
  • A HAH!
    At the end of the day (or hour), have each person (or team) record their “a hah” learning points on one of the several flip chart pages posted around the room. Encourage group sharing and discussion about those points. [Submitted online by Terri Daniels]
  • Circle. Square. Triangle.
    After being presented with new content, asks students to jot down three things:

    1. Circle: What’s still going around in your head? What do you still not understand?
    2. Square: What’s squared away? What do you really understand?
    3. Triangle: What three things could you use in your life, work, or studies?

    [Dirksen, D. “Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction,” Phi Delta Kappan. April 2011]

  • Points to Ponder
    At the start of the training tell your group to collect one more “points to ponder” over the course of the session. Towards the end of the session, ask that they each share their top three points to ponder. Sharing should include: why these points were selected, how do they plan to implement that learning.Following the discussion, engage the group in a conversation about how they can make it happen: What resources they would need in order to move forward? What time frame would be workable? [Submitted online by Aliya K]
  • One Thing
    Rather than focusing on a whole slew of learning points, have participants answer this question for themselves: “What is the one thing I learned, which if I start doing now, can make a big difference to my work/output/contribution?”

The Commitment

If the purpose of the Debrief is to extract the key learning points from the experience, the focus of the Commitment is twofold: to imprint the learning into long-term memory and use it, either as a basis for further learning or to affect behavior change and performance improvement.

Commitment to Memory
Many brain-compatible learning sources tout the benefits of common memory tricks such as development of mnemonics, identification of useful analogies to relate new learning to something they already know, or selective note-taking or underlining. These are all important methods to “commit” new information to memory.

Commitment to Change
After new learning is sealed into your mind, either through repetition, mnemonics, story-telling, or emotional engagement with the material, the challenge is using the learning to affect change. Here are a couple of ideas to ensure that learning is taken back into the workplace.

  • Promises, Promises.
    At the start of class distribute a 3×5 card to every participant. Explain that by the end of the workshop, you’d like each of them to write down one to three ideas they “promise” to do when they go back at work. At the end of the session, ask them to complete their “promise(s)” and share it with other participants. This gives them added incentive to follow through on their commitment to change behavior. [Submitted online by Suzanne Whitehead]
  • Band-Aid or Surgery?
    At the end of a review, discuss what it would take for learners to put into practice all that they learned. Ask them if their ideas can be put into action. If yes, great. If not, discuss why not. What practices, attitudes, or systems inhibit or enable implementation of new ideas. In order to implement changes, do other processes need to fixed? Can they be fixed quickly and easily with a virtual Band-Aid, or is there a hemorrhaging issue that needs more radical attention in order for the learning to take affect?


Whether learning happens online or in a classroom, the lesson is the same, key learning points should be repeated, repeated, and repeated. Learning experiences should be “debriefed” in order to call the learner’s attention to the top learning points. And before concluding the experience, facilitators should ask: “What will prevent you or enable you to put the learning into action?”


Since writing this article, I’ve seen many more great ideas.  Some of them follow . . .


I post an “AHA!” Learning chart on the wall in front of the class, clearly visible to everyone. At the beginning of the session, I request that whenever someone feels a new, exciting, useful thought/practice/information is shared, they have to raise their hand and say AHA! aloud. We post that learning point on the AHA!! Learning chart. At the end of the day and end of the training, we summarize our AHA! points. Posted online by Surender Kumar

Think, Pair, Square, Share

1) Individual thinking/reflection time
2) Share thoughts with one colleague
3) Two pairs form a ‘square’ of four; continue discussion
4) One spokesperson shares their groups’ thoughts

Posted online by Melanie Rawlings

Circular Interviewing

This technique can be used as a feedback and consolidation exercise, an ice-breaker, a stand-alone exercise for practicing listening and, more specifically, questioning skills.
Have your group sit in a circle, and explain to them: “Each of you will ask the person opposite two OPEN questions. The topic of your first question should be anything related to the purpose of and desired outcomes for the training.  The second question must relate to the first answer i.e. you’re developing the other person’s idea and deepening your understanding of it. If you begin a closed question, I’ll simply ask you to reword it. The second questioner will be the person sitting next to the current questioner, and so on round the circle until everybody has asked and been asked two questions.”  Posted online by Michael Mallows

Pack your bags

Show participants an image of a suitcase and ask. “Of all the tools and ideas shared here, what are you putting in your suitcase for you journey back and why?” This debriefing activity can be simple or quite elaborate, involving props and cards depending on the amount of time you have available. Posted online by Kwame Akpokavi

Another spin on this was posted online by Crystal Runge.  She suggested “When I’m looking to wrap  things up quickly I’ll ask for each person’s “ticket out the door,” which is to share one key thing (and no repeats) that they’ll most immediately apply back on the job. It’s a fast round-robin that allows reflection and confirms that the time was well spent.

Tree of Knowledge

On a whiteboard or flipchart, draw a tree (just a trunk with branches, no leaves.) Then, give the participants post-its, to write down what they learned to help them grow. Ask participants to stick the notes on the tree. The post-its act like leaves for the tree. The more “leaves,” the more they feel they have learned.

To close the activity, I ask the group to remember what the tree looked like without leaves–when they lacked the knowledge gained in training.   Then we discuss what we need to do “feed the tree.” To remember and apply our new knowledge, we must start from the roots. This makes a nice segue to the Start, Stop, Continue, Change model.  Posted by Kemi

A Picture’s Worth . . . / MindMaps  / Visual Chunking

This has been recommended by several trainers, each putting their own spin on it:

  1. For a creative and visual ending, provide delegates with colored pens and plain paper. Ask delegates to create a picture or image representing a key learning point for them. Then, have each share their picture with the group. You can post all of the pictures on the wall as a collage or invite delegates to take the picture away with them. If the group pools together their lessons learned, you might follow up by asking them to create one picture that sums up the learning for the group. Posted by Rosemary Bannister
  2. Group the participants, and ask them to sketch and connect the learnings nodes on a flip chart, focusing on graphics, not words. Working in groups is ideal as it allows people to pool their collective wisdom.   For your reference, a mindmap, looks like this. “Visually summarizing” material allows individuals to structure their thoughts and improves future recall. Add to it the fun of creatively sketching cartoons, it becomes a good blend of learning+fun. This can also be done over the course of the learning event. Posted online by Alok Sharma
  3. Another approach: At the end of information “chunks” or modules, I instruct participants to graphically record the key points of that learning segment on a flip chart (without using written words.) I then ask the individuals or teams to explain their drawings (or Mental Model). “Prizes” can be given out at following the wrap-up at the end of the module for things like “scariest mental model,” “most colorful” or “my Kindergartner could do better.” Posted online by Brent Corless

Start – Stop – Continue – Change

This method, first introduced to our group by Dian Anderson, has embellished by scores of others.  Following are some facilitation suggestions to maximize the effectiveness of this technique.

  1. I ask participants to go to the last page in their workbooks and challenge themselves in one or more of these areas. I then ask volunteers to stand and share their personal challenges with the group.Posted by Melissa Wood
  2. My variation, using Green, Yellow and Red Cards, can be particularly useful in longer sessions, as a tool to engage the audience. Periodically, throughout the learning event, I hold up a particular card and engage the group in a discussion about a Green Behavior, which should be continued; Red Behavior, which need to stop; or Yellow behaviors, over which we should be watchful and proceed cautiously. Posted online by Sajan Nair
  3. Another trainer I know (thanks Sonja!) has provided postcards and stamps at the end of workshops for people to write their comments using something like Start-Stop-Continue-Change – they get their own postcard back in the mail in a few days, as a reminder. Posted online by Fiona Clapham Howard

  4. I like to get folks up off their feet, so I have laminated road signs that say START STOP CONTINUE CHANGE. I ask participants to go to the last page in their workbooks and challenge themselves in one or more of these areas. Then………be prepared to share with the group! I then ask volunteers to stand and choose one of these road signs (hold it up to the class) and share with the group what they have challenged themselves to do!  Melissa Wood
  5. Several have added the word SHARE to the quartet. They’ll ask: Who needs you to share the information you learned with them?

Toss the ball

Have everyone stand up and form a circle wherein everyone be facing in, looking at each other. The trainer tosses the ball to a person and asks them tell what they thought was the most important learning concept in the session. They then toss the ball to someone and that person explains what they though was the most important concept.

Continue the exercise until everyone has caught the ball at least once and explained an important concept of the material just covered. The trainer should jot down memorable points on the board for reference and reinforcement. This activity can be very quick and will keep participants on their toes.  Posted by Vidya GV


Ask learners to draw a 3×3 grid on a large sheet of paper, and to number the cells randomly (placing the digit on the top right corner, so as to allow space for writing in the cell). Once the grids are set, call out one of the numbers and ask accompanying question from topics you want to revisit. When someone has a line or a row filled in with answers (same rules as bingo…) they call out, we check their answers and then move on.  Winners get a chocolate or points.  Posted by Althea Michael

Circle of competence

I tell (remind) people about the four levels (or stages) of competence and ask them what key learning points transitioned from Unconscious or Conscious  Incompetence:

  • Unconscious Competence, where we don’t know that we don’t know, so we don’t realise the need for learning.
  • Conscious Incompetence, where we DO know that we don’t know, and realise that we might have to do more or less of something to become more competent. This stage can be very frustrating, especially for people who lack self-confidence or, indeed, those who have so much self-confidence, they don’t think they need to learn anything. Many people give up due to frustration, and they are most likely not to persevere with applying any learning.
  • Conscious Competence, this is also frustrating but in a different way to the previous stage. We get annoyed with ourselves because we are so close to the new learning becoming a well honed skill, but, being so close can be motivating.
  • Unconscious Competence, now it’s almost second nature, we don’t have to think about it or focus too much attention on applying it.

As trainers, we must remember that different approaches are is required depending on which stage somebody is ‘at’.
Posted by Michael Mallow

Support Groups

I ask people to choose a particular strategy or technique from the day that they want to focus on in their work following the workshop. (They literally choose one – all are printed attractively on slips of paper with a graphic and a short description, and laid out on a table.) They are asked to cluster in groups with other people who have chosen the same strategy. Then they are asked to take a few minutes to make a plan about how they will work on the technique they have chosen. They can discuss their plan with someone else, and may plan to use each other as resources for actioning the plan. There is space in their workbooks to make some notes. Posted online by Fiona Clapham Howard

Letter or Postcard Prep

At the end of a workshop, I prepare a letter that reminds participants of the values [or learning points] they listed earlier in the day, and send this to each person (personally addressed to each one), with a resource list and my contact details for any questions. I’m experimenting with making a “word cloud” of the values/attitudes instead, still to be sent to each person later. Posted online by Fiona Clapham Howard  

NOTE: an additional Postcard option is to have participants pair up and write a postcard to one another. That can be even more fun that writing to yourself!


Have participants create a 60 day “contract” where they document:

  • 2 new skills they want to focus on over that time frame
  • 3-5 action steps they will accomplish for each

They then select a session member to be their partner to “check in” with over the 60 days and obtain the partner’s signature on the contract.

Make two copies-give one to the participant, one to the partner, and I keep one for myself. After the 60 days, I mail the contract to the participant as a follow-up and send a note with it.  Posted online by Cindy Goodwin

“Knowledge IS(N’T) Power

Ask, simply: “How many of you have heard the saying and really believe that KNOWLEDGE IS POWER?”

You’ll get a unanimous raise of hands and lots of nods. Then bluntly say, “Well, it isn’t true.” {Pause for a dramatic effect while participants look shocked and confused}.

Then continue, “We have gained a lot of knowledge in this training; however it won’t make any difference…it won’t empower you in any way, unless……..???” then participants start filling in the blank with variations of “YOU APPLY IT!”

I say, “Yes! So let’s hear how each one of you is going to apply the knowledge gained in order to get real power from it…”  Give participants a minute or two to share out loud what they will immediately apply from the training.  Posted online by Rahila Narejo

What. Who. When. An Action Plan for applied learning

Ask your group to fill complete an Action Plan at the end of the training session. Have them write:

  • WHAT is to be done
  • WHO can help
  • WHEN it should be done

Posted online by Fayo Williams

Traffic Light review

Let learners plan what will they do differently when they return to the workplace:

  • Red – STOP DOING
  • Green – START DOING, their own personal action plan!    Posted online by Orla Leydon

 Peer to Peer Test

Have  participants write out “two or three questions about the class that they think you would ask if you were giving them a test.” They can use a sheet of paper or write them flip-chart pads around the room. When they are done, ask the rest of the class to answer the questions. Posted online by Liliana Lucy


Distribute a sheet with a question at the top & some empty answer boxes. (i.e. “what are the 3 or 4 most important things I learned? or “what are the 3 or 4 most important things to remember if you are (doing “x”)?”. Prompt the group to imagine they are mentoring a junior colleague and encourage them to delve deeper into the ‘nuts & bolts.’ Then:

  1. Take a few minutes and have them to put their answers in the first box
  2. Tell them find partner, cut down their combined 6 – 8 answers to 3 – 4 (same time limit again), and record these in the second box. Doing this requires them to explain and justify their choices.
  3. For the final phase, work as a whole group. Have a board or flip chart to make group notes & record the final selections.

NOTE: 99% of the time, the group will come up with all the points you would have raised yourself (groupthink is not always bad!).  Posted online by Chris Taylor

The Elevator Speech of Learning

Encourage the class to look at the bigger picture with a question like, “When you get back to your desk, what’s your 3-second elevator speech to your supervisor and co-workers explaining how what you’ve learned will benefit our customers?”  Posted online by Carlene Goldwaite

Mnemonics that work


I ask them for…

    • an OMI–One Meaningful Idea to implement
    • an OMG–One Meaningful Goal to pursue.

Posted online by Phyllis Strupp

Keeping TABBs

An offshoot to the Start,Stop… is keeping TABBs: 

    • Takeaway from the ‘event’
    • Action you will take
    • Barriers that may hinder your progress
    • Benefits of overcoming the barriers and implementing the learning

Posted online by Kavita Iver


For years, I have used a method I call ABCO: 

    • ACTION:  Based on (whatever you are debriefing) what new or different ACTION will you take?
    • BENEFITS: What BENEFITS will you receive when you take this action?
    • CHALLENGES: What CHALLENGES will you face in implementing this action?
    • OVERCOME: How will you OVERCOME those challenges?”

Posted online by Steve Overton

3 D’s

Ask each attendee to pull out a piece of paper and divide it into 3 sections. On each section, they will make a list 3-5 things that fit each category:

    • Do it — things they feel they need to do, fix, work on
    • Delegate it — things they feel they need some extra help with
    • Drop it — things they feel they worry about and have no control over
    • [Discuss it — things they feel will stop them from implementing what was just taught]

Posted online by Erin Osborne

Thiagi’s “BARNGA” approach

I use the 5 questions from Thiagi’s game called Barnga to debrief any experiential activity: 

  1. How do you feel?
  2. What happened – behaviors.
  3. How will my / our behavior change as a result?
  4. What advice would you give?
  5. How does this relate to work?

Posted online by Craig Wallace

5-10-Y – AHA!

Ask your group to write their “Aha moments” on a page. To the left of them I ask them to write a 5, 10, or Y.

5 means that they will act on those things in the next 5 days

10 means they will act on it within 10 day’s time.

Y means “I should have done this yesterday”!  Posted online by Sherry Darden

Mind/Body Connections: Gestures / Sculptures / Squeezers

Getting the whole body involved in an exercise can activate the brain and make material more memorable. Here are a few Mind/Body review exercises that were shared:

GESTURES:  Have everyone stand in a circle. Ask them to take a moment to think of one thing they have brought and one thing they will take away from the session. Ask them to match a simple gesture to that skill, feeling or quality. Have each share their two statement/gestures. As they do, have others in the circle silently mirror each gesture as it is made. The impact is powerful and memorable.(Examples: open hands can equally mean networking, generosity or honesty). Posted online by Ali Campbell

SCULPTURES: Give every participant a piece of clay or play-dough and ask each to give it a shape, as per their learning/take- away from the program.  Posted online by Rachita Rai

SQUEEZERS:  I like to use an assortment of squishy stress balls (e.g. foot, crown, hot hair balloon) that they pick out bags randomly. I tell them that they get points if they can metaphorically link their statements to the object. Bonus points for cheesy links! Posted online by Shirley Gaston

Break bread together

We can’t forget one important ritual — a meal.

You don’t have to be the one to sponsor it or even pay for it! Simply, go somewhere local, have each person pay their way, and enjoy the fun of being together and talking about the experience. I do it all the time. Its awesome. Nothing concludes or brings people together like a good meal. Neither you or they will forget it.  Posted online by Geoff Sander

Video wrap-up

Ask people to commit to do any one thing they have learned and record it on a video.  This is easy now thanks to smart phones. When people commit on a video in front of the entire class, they are more likely to try it out later. Sometimes I’ll even play back the video at a subsequent session. Posted online by Sampath Lyengar KR

Another approach with video is to ask teams to create a fun video highlighting their key learning points. You can encourage them to post their video online or share it with colleagues! In the best of all worlds, they’ll view it over and over again. Posted online by Susan Landay

Other good wrap-up questions

    1. A. “What barriers might you run into trying to apply _____?  B. What potential solutions can you envision to deal with these?
    2. What do you know today, that you didn’t know yesterday, that will serve you tomorrow?
    3. What will you do differently as a result of what you learned?
    4. What will you share with other you work with?

Additional Models and Resources for Debriefing

Experiential Learning Cycle

NMMI Yates Leadership Challenge Ropes Course – © Eric Evertson – a series of review questions for experiential activities.

More on What–So What–Now What?, from the Holden Leadership Center – facilitation notes on conducting a meaningful debrief.

Some debriefing activities – additional questions and tools for meaningful debriefs

Dr. Roger Greenaway Reviewing Skills


11 thoughts on “Memorable Debriefs”

  1. Susan Landay says:

    Love this idea posted on LinkedIN by Paul Kearney yesterday. Thank you Paul!

    Participants divide an A-4 sheet of paper into 4 quadrants, by drawing a line from top to bottom and another from side to side (axis) (little like a window pane).

    Next I ask them to write in top left box – something practical they got from the workshop.

    Next they crush the page into a tight ball. On cue they throw the paper balls around the room until everyone has one. They read the comment.

    Next in right box at top they write – some idea/concept they have learned. The papers are crunched into balls again and thrown. Comments are read again.

    Process is repeated for the bottom boxes with the following questions:
    • What is an area you need to know more about?
    • What message would you give the trainer/boss/?

    To conclude I usually ask the participants to throw the balls into a bin, held aloft, with the promise all comments will be recorded and redistributed.

    You can adapt this to any question prompts, such as: Start-Stop-Continue-Change.
    The activity is enjoyable and thought provoking.
    — Posted by Paul Kearney

  2. Sue Landay says:

    Posted online by Larry

    One of my favorite debriefs is that I have a little bag of objects of all sorts. There is a tiger, a kitten, a shark, a tiny chalkboard and all sorts of different items. These are items I have added to my little bag over several years. I pass the bag around and ask each individual to share which object they felt most like at the beginning of the program and which object they feel like at the end and why. This can be very informative and sometimes very emotional. It’s an extremely powerful exercise.

    Another closing exercise is to review the 4 places a person can be in an activity. They are Participant, Passenger, Prisoner and Protester. Go through your activities and ask who felt they were one of the 4, when and why.

    Another rather general one I use and frankly it would depend on what type of activities you did in the program. I ask each participant to tell the group if they could take a picture of something that happened in the program and make it a postcard, what would the picture be, who would they send it to and why?

  3. Sue Landay says:

    Posted online by Sherry

    5,10, Y
    I sometimes will use the 5, 10, Y. When they write down their aha moments, they will write a 5,10, Y. This means the participant will take action in the next 5 or 10 days. The Y means “yesterday” and means they will take action immediately.

  4. Susan Landay says:

    Posted online by Mary T. McIntosh

    Use three words to describe your experience; collect words and enter them into; sharing these results is fun too. Words most frequently used show up in larger font, least frequent, smaller font.

    Near the end of the event, put up a giant post-it note (or multiples if large crowd) and ask participants to share something they learned. Some will use words, some will draw, others will collect nearby and have a conversation. This has been a valuable “no pressure” reflection tool.

    invite participants to write themselves a postcard, reminding themselves to follow up on one thing they learned – collect them, make copies for your records, and mail out x days later. Postage is worth it! for more complex data collection, send another postcard x months later asking participants to go to x webpage to tell the story of how they followed up or put into practice what they learned.

  5. Susan Landay says:

    Posted online by Sharon

    I create a long wall chart (I use several pages of chart paper stuck together and put horizontally), on which I draw a river or a street down the center. Along the street or river I crudely draw tourist spots or areas of interest, (i.e. a pier, tower, historic house, tree etc.) These can be very simple almost stick drawings. The number of drawings matches the number of topics covered in the session with the correlating topic written in text under the drawing. For instance, the tree might represent the topic ‘Knowledge Transfer’ and a house might represent ‘foundations of leadership’.

    The group are given post it notes and asked to respond to the following question with each answer on a separate post-it. “If you were a tourist guide for this street, which are three places you would suggest people to visit?”

    Have each person come up to the chart and place their notes against the ‘stop” they would recommend and have them let the rest of the group know why they chose that site?

    This is an energetic way to review and close a session as well as give the trainer some insight into which topics were best received.

  6. Sue Landay says:

    “For start-stop-continue-change, I also ask the participants to list down ‘Enablers/ Blocks,’ which would facilitate (or stop) the implementation of the learning at their work place. I

    Posted by Vivek

  7. Andrea Jessop says:

    I just want to thank you for such a great post! So many ideas and practical take-aways! Love your blog!

  8. Masooma says:

    Thank you for all these great ideas. I teach mindful parenting.

    A closing ritual I like is “Sink a fear and float a hope”. Get a large bowl of water. give each person one stone and one feather. Have them sink the stone for something they want to let go of that no longer serves them and float a hope they have for themselves in the future.

    1. Susan Landay says:

      Masooma, Thank you. I love the Stone and Feature idea!


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