Monday, September 30, 2013

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: How to Debrief a Simulation

The debrief is the most critical part of the simulation experience. Here, participants step back from the experience, reflect, and start to understand the significance that the course has for their lives and work. The instructor's manual for the simulation can be invaluable in planning the debrief.

Provide sufficient time

Nothing is more important than having sufficient time for the debrief.

Provide optimal room setup for debriefing

Unless the manual specifies otherwise, the best setup for an effective debrief is a tight horseshoe with you sitting at the opening. The intimacy created naturally facilitates communication and participation, and makes it easy for everyone to be heard and seen, which is important since body language can often be very significant.

Coach the leader

Coach leaders to listen carefully and to wait until others have weighed in before doing so themselves to keep from influencing the group. If a leader chooses to observe during the simulation, he should only observe during the debrief.

Reframe winning and losing

If participants feel that they have been unsuccessful in the simulation, they may feel dejected, and as a result, be less receptive to the learning that will take place during the debrief. To avoid this, you should communicate clearly that the success of the experience is not about the outcome of the simulation but about the learning that emerges from the debrief.

Provide time for reflection

This is important to all learners, but especially for introverted personalities who need time to reflect before they can comfortably share. Encourage journaling to capture thoughts and questions.

Ask good questions

An effective facilitator must ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions. Be careful to avoid leading questions that convey judgments or conclusions. For example: "Were you demonstrating a culture of risk aversion when no one challenged Joe's ideas during the redesign?" A more open-ended question is: "No one seemed to challenge Joe's suggestions. Why?"

Manage the naysayers

Occasionally, participants may have trouble extrapolating the simulation problem to their broader environment. They may say that they see no relevance to their actual work setting. Rather than defend the simulation, turn to a flip chart and create two headings: how the simulation is similar to their work, and how it is different. Give the participants time to fill out both lists. Next, acknowledge the differences, and then mark a big "X" through this list.

Keep the focus on the group's learning

Participants and facilitators alike will experience different observations during the simulation. It is important to use the majority of the allotted debrief time to assist the group in the discovery of their learning, not yours as the facilitator. If you choose to draw the group out on a sensitive issue, be sure to allow sufficient time for discussion. It is unwise and unfair to do so if there isn't enough time.

Encourage different perspectives

One of the most valuable parts of the debrief process is the realization that each person experiences people and situations differently. Encourage participants to share their perceptions even if they are different from what others share. If people are agreeing too readily, pose the simple question, "Is anyone willing to share a different perspective?"

Help participants make connections to the workplace

Once drawn into the simulation experience, participants will forget that they are not operating in the "real world." Throughout the debrief, take every opportunity to pose questions and facilitate discussion that will enable participants to draw parallels between their experience and the workplace.

Use creative tools to add value to the debrief

There are many creative tools that can enrich the debrief experience, including:
  • Energy or interest charts that ask each participant to chart his energy or interest levels at different times during the simulation
  • Relationship maps that create a visual representation of basic work groups (functions) in the simulation and how they perceive their relationships to other work groups in terms of importance, amount of contact, and influence
  • Graffiti walls on which participants draw symbols to indicate reactions or feelings throughout the simulation
  • Metaphors that draw comparisons between participants' experiences and team dynamics
  • Visual Explorer, through which participants can select pictures to represent the experience.

Exercise good judgment in timing

Each simulation has a prescribed debrief process outlined in the facilitation guide. Try to end a debrief session while there is still some energy in the room, especially if there will be subsequent debriefs for the simulation.

Please share your insights and questions by posting comments below. For help in selecting the right simulation, pairing a simulation with an assessment, or learning how to become certified to use any of our simulations, visit our website at or use our Contact Page. We have compiled extensive data to inform us about the best simulation and assessment instruments for different circumstances.

This post was extracted from an article by Chris Musselwhite,  Sue Kennedy, and Nancy Probst, originally published in T+D magazine (American Society for Training and Development).

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