The debriefing teaching method is a critical element of health science education. It prepares learners to translate educational experiences into clinical practice. It encourages students to become the kind of self-reflecting individuals that continue to grow throughout their careers. 

With a deep understanding of debriefing theory and practice, you can facilitate a learning process that transcends the classroom. This post sets you up for success with an overview of debriefing models and their place in the classroom.

Debriefing and Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is as much about discovering your own learning process as learning the subject. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory outlines a repeating cycle in which each step builds on the previous one:

  • Experiencing. The concrete experience that initiates the process.
  • Reflecting. The review of the experience.
  • Thinking. The formation of conclusions and abstract concepts based on the review.
  • Acting. The translation of those lessons into concrete decisions and action, leading to a new experience.

People move through these steps organically, often without noticing. Everyone builds off previous experience. It informs our worldview, and we plan for future events accordingly.

In debriefing, a facilitator leads participants through the retrospective analysis of an experience. The dialogue should be inclusive, attentive, and structured in a way that invites further contemplation.

The goal of debriefing is to make experiential learning steps conscious and deliberate. Doing so allows fuller interpretation and better integration of ongoing education. It also lets you identify the triggers and reflexes that get in the way of learning and intervene as necessary.

The Benefits of the Debriefing Method of Teaching

A good debriefing session increases the likelihood of positive learning outcomes. It’s a form of reflection that benefits both students and teachers.

Benefits for Students

Debriefing improves clinical skills and patient care. Students achieve more when education is intentional. Debriefing helps them take an active role in learning, setting them up to learn more. They develop a better understanding of course material and their learning style.

When done correctly, debriefing should encourage peer-to-peer and student-teacher communication. It encourages them to look at one another as a resource, an attitude they can take into their professional lives. This type of social learning is even more important for classes with online components.

Simulation debriefing and clinical practice allow students to maximize an experience’s effects. They don’t yet have years of practice on which to draw, but they can make the most of what they have.

Benefits for Teachers

Teachers also reap the rewards of thoughtful debriefing, benefiting from more effective learning communities. It’s a great way to increase student engagement and check in on student progress. You can identify potential trouble areas and opportunities.

The debriefing method of teaching also provides a continual source of feedback for teacher education. You can apply the experiential learning model to your work as an educator.

Effective Debriefing: Steps and Phases 

To make debriefing truly effective, you need to engage people while the experience is still fresh in their minds. Throughout the conversation, you should follow these best practices of simulation debriefing:

  • Ensure that everyone feels safe in the space
  • Establish rules regarding confidentiality and participation
  • Address key learning objectives
  • Use open-ended questions
  • Let silence build after questions, waiting for students to volunteer or call on ones who already have

These tips encourage full group participation, even if not all participation is vocal. The facilitator also needs to provide structure and clear intention. While a free-form dialogue is better than nothing, you can increase your session’s impact by adopting one of the following frameworks:

The Three-Step Model of Debriefing

This three-step model takes participants through three stages of reflection: What? So what? And now what?


Be scientific about debriefing. First, collect the data, drawing out information about what learners experienced. You can start by asking them to recount the activity. What happened? What did they observe? Push them to give more details about unclear or important events. 

Some interpretation and synthesis are inevitable as learners summarize their experiences. As much as possible, nudge them back towards the data. If a practice was successful, how was it successful? What were the visible markers of success? If a patient or colleague seemed to feel [any emotion], what were the signs? What “tells” did they exhibit?

Remember that you won’t — can’t — foresee all potential discoveries. Unexpected points may arise. Embrace these as the opportunities they are.

So What?

Move from observation into analysis and interpretation. You’ve collected these observations. So what? What do they imply? 

Ask students about the individual roles they played. Press them to identify personal communication strategies and ways they felt supported by others. Unpack successes and failures.

Don’t dismiss negative assessments but underscore positive ones. If participants single one another out, ask them to be abstract. Mutual encouragement is a good outcome, but keep critique constructive and intervene if learners ever “gang up” on one of their peers.

Continually refer to observations from the first stage. Ground interpretations in concrete examples and dwell on anything that intrigued you in the first stage.

Now What?

The final step is to plan for the future. Now what? How can you apply the lessons learned today to tomorrow’s possible experiences? Ask students to consider the previous conversation phases. They should also brainstorm situations in which these lessons would be relevant. 

The objective is to extend beyond identical situations and simulations. How can students apply these lessons? How can they remember them at the right times? Help them set themselves up for future success.

The 3D Model of Debriefing

Another way to structure the debriefing session is with the 3 Ds: defusing, discovering, and deepening. These D words honor the personal nature of experiential learning and enable a productive, honest conversation.


The first step is to defuse potentially volatile topics and ensure everyone is on the same page. The same emotions that give experiential learning outcomes their power can create difficulties for the facilitator. Give students a safe space to vent. Allow them to express frustrations, ask for clarifications on the course material, and identify and label their feelings. 

This model draws on therapeutic practice to defuse student learning. Ask participants how they felt during and about the experience. Note that you’re not asking them to judge success or failure. Simulations can be stressful, and processing them requires moving past that tension. Otherwise, it will reappear and hamper the dialogue.

The other part of the defusing stage is establishing a common set of facts. What happened during the activity? Agreeing on medical facts allows you to focus on communication and procedure.


Whereas defusing revolves around emotion and facts, discovering is about reflection and reasons. Many connections people make are unexamined or even unknown. Your job as a facilitator is to have participants think through their mental processes and identify connections. Ask them why they made each assumption or decision. 

Discovering the whys helps students who were incorrect and those who made the right decisions or got the right answers. They may have gotten lucky, or they may feel as if they got lucky because they haven’t identified the whole chain of connections that led to their conclusion. When you know the steps, you can replicate success and fix failure.

In cases where students got things wrong, it’s important to realize what information is missing or what link in the reasoning chain is problematic.


Deepening extends and intensifies learning. Students should abstract from their discoveries and apply that knowledge. In this discussion stage, you can bring in counterexamples and complications. You can also model your own chains of reasoning. 

As you wrap up the session, consider asking students to identify one thing they can take away from today and apply tomorrow. Focusing them this way will reinforce the lesson and help prevent information overload.

Debriefing in the Classroom

Incorporate debriefing techniques beyond medical simulations. Conscious reflection should be a continual feature of the classroom. Students will also come to simulation debriefings more prepared for a productive discussion.

Teach Debriefing

Health science professions require critical thinking and participating in multiple, changing teams. Allow students to practice this in a low-stakes environment. Teach students how to interrogate the learning process and think critically about their performance as part of a team. 

Focus on this skill by debriefing games and simple activities that require few other skills and little external knowledge to complete. For example, you might provide groups with small children’s jigsaw puzzles. You can increase the challenge and the potential extrapolations by having them complete the puzzle face down.

After they’ve finished, ask them about their experience. What worked well? What didn’t? How did their team organize itself? How did incomplete information (the lack of a picture) hamper them, and how did they overcome this challenge?

Turn the puzzle activity into a series, having them do different puzzles face up or work around challenges such as missing or modified pieces. Debrief after each iteration.

Debrief Teaching

Incorporate debriefing methods into your lesson plans, giving students time to reflect and process the material you’re teaching. While these sessions won’t be as structured or as involved as formal debriefings, you can foster experiential learning daily.

Debriefing Exercises

You can use any of these formats for a quick end-of-class debriefing:

  • Journaling. Have students write about that day’s learning experiences. Reserve a couple of minutes for people that want to share.
  • Small group discussion. Put students in pairs or small groups to address questions.
  • Exit tickets. Have students write a few lines about the lesson, either summarizing or reflecting on their confidence in the material. They should hand or email these to the teacher before leaving.
  • Class surveys. Ask each student to answer a short question or say something about what they’ve learned.

Debriefing Prompts

Focus the debriefing with one of these prompts:

  • Stop, start, continueIdentify one thing you should stop, one you should start, and one you should continue.
  • 3-2-1. What are three things you discovered? Two things you found interesting? One question you still have?
  • Mindmap. Write the lesson theme in the center of a page. Then jot down the things you learned today and circle them. Write down the remaining questions and square them. Finally, write down impressions or feelings and underline them. Draw connections between the words.
  • Elevator speech. How would you describe what you learned today to someone with no prior experience in the field?

You can also use playing cards to debrief. Shuffle and distribute cards to all participants. They will share answers in small groups or to the whole class based on the suit they drew:

  • Hearts. What’s something you felt during the lesson?
  • Spades. What’s something that surprised you?
  • Diamonds. What’s something of value that you learned?
  • Clubs. How can you apply something you learned to future situations?

The Final Debrief

Educators need to leverage the debriefing method of teaching. It’s an effective tool that fosters an understanding of course material and enables students to apply experiential learning throughout their careers.

Bring structure to your next simulation debriefing with three-step debriefing (What? So What? Now what?) or the 3D model (Defusing, Discovering, Deepening). These can help you create a safe space, establish common facts, analyze experiences, and increase impact and application. 

But don’t stop there. Debriefing encourages students in all disciplines to synthesize material and reflect on personal performance. Make it a regular feature of your classes, and students will reap the benefits.

Reflection is a necessary part of higher education. That’s why Caduceus covers different health science trends and topics on the CIP blog. We’re committed to providing you with the best teaching resources and course materials so that you and your students can learn and grow together.