Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Debriefing Lesson

There, I said it.

People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…

People only learn from reflecting on their experience. That’s the point author, facilitator and educator Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan drives home in his writings and workshops.

The Key To Learning From An Experience

If people learn from experience, Thiagi stresses, would they make the same mistake over and over again in their life?

The key to learning from an experience is thinking about and reflecting on that experience.

If you don’t reflect on your experience, it just becomes another low, mediocre or high experience in your life.

This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn. Debriefing must be a part of each session for real learning to occur.

Debriefing: An Approach To Reflection

Debriefing is one way to encourage attendees to reflect on their experience and share their thoughts.

Frequently, presenters think debriefing is something that happens at the end of a presentation or activity. But it is way more than that. And when used appropriately, it can lead to discerning and perceptive thoughts that serve as the foundation for learning.

All education activities—case studies, discussions, games, individual reflection exercises, lectures, simulations, etc.—merely provide the scaffolding for debriefing says Thiagi. When an education experience does not allow for personal debriefing, it fails to reach the maximum learning effectiveness.

Debriefing is using questions for individual or small group discussions to elicit and share useful insights, and present relevant facts, concepts and principles. Debriefing allows individuals to reflect on the experience or content, connect it to their real world, reduce negative reactions and an increase insight says Thiagi.

Debriefing Effectiveness

Thiagi identifies three situations when debriefing is most effective:

1. The lecture involves content that contains counterintuitive attitudes, principles and values.

This is especially important when a presenter shares information that goes against widely accepted common practices.

2. Participants are capable of expressing feelings, insights and thoughts.

The starting point is always allowing participants to give voice to their feelings first then thoughts. We feel before we think. (See step one below.)

3. The education session uses a powerful interactive experiential exercise.

The experience does not take up too much time and allows adequate time for debriefing discussions. Nor is the experience gimmicky. Often the exercise identifies when participants are behaving in a dysfunctional fashion or following accepted common sense accepted behaviors that are based on myth.

Six-Phase Model For Debriefing Questions

Thiagi identifies a six-phase model to structure debriefing questions. He says it is important to follow these guidelines for effective debriefing.

1. How do you feel?

We feel before we think. It is important to allow participants to voice their strong emotional reaction to any interactive exercise. Encourage nonjudgmental listening to one another as they identify their feelings.

2. What happened?

Ask participants to compare and contrast what happened during the exercise. Ask them to draw conclusions from their activity.

3. What did you learn?

This is the opportunity for participants to apply their thoughts to the real world and verbally test their applications. Share a principle tied to the activity and ask participants for data to support or reject it.

4. How does this relate to the real world?

Ask participants to identify how the activity relates to their work. Discuss the relevance of the activity to real world work.

5. What if?

Ask participants to apply their thoughts to new contexts. State a new scenario related to the activity and ask participants to speculate how it would have affected their experience.

6. What next?

Ask participants to identify what they will do with this new information in informal action planning.

Why do so few presenters use debriefing exercises? What are some attributes of an appropriate interactive exercise that allows for good debriefing and learning?

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  1. Love this article! Thanks for sharing, Jeff. I will be building more debriefing into my presentations after reading this (which I have been wanting to do, anyway) but this give me the best reason to do it!

    To answer your questions, I think that debriefing rarely occurs partially because presenters feel both the weight of time (so much to share and so little time to do it) and the weight of the stares of the conference organizers (i.e. why are we paying that speaker so much just to watch the delegates do all the work?!).

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      So glad you are going to take the leap and add debriefing to your presentations. It will have a huge positive impact for your audience. And that’s who your presentation is for anyway! Looking forward to hearing how debriefing caused you to be the rock star presenter that you are.

      Thank you for reading and extending the conversation.

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