My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Debriefing tools for Enquiry Based Learning

I have compiled a list of ideas to help teachers get the most from the debrief of enquiry based/ experiential/ open ended learning activities. If you have any more I would love to here from you to add to this resource.

A brief guide to debriefing

The major responsibility for conducting successful enquiry based learning rests with the debriefing phase of the exercise. The debriefing is an important process designed to synergize, strengthen, and transfer learning from the experiential exercise. The most successful way of doing this is through non judgemental feedback

Developing the willingness to be debriefed

At the very start of the learning experience it is vital that an overview of what the session will look like is important for learner. This must be done and valued regularly. It must include and highlight both a reflection and debrief session: reflection should be a quiet individual time and debriefs will tend to be whole classes or at least large groups.
The agreement of success criteria at this point is invaluable, whether it is a skill or an attribute. This will encourage students to buy into the process, value the feedback and change their practices (ie learn)
The quality of debriefs is dependent on trust, so the better you know your students the better their response will be. Therefore plan to increase the intensity of them over an academic year.
Debriefs do not always occur at the end of session and short punchy “refocus” style one shouldbe planned in. It may also be beneficial to host responsive ones to change the direction ( whether it be a behavioural or content problem) , although it may be better in the long run to allow a mistake and its consequences manifest itself before intervening. A longer term view should therefore occasionally override a short term management issue.

Health warning

When debriefing ,especially when sharing data or feedback on performance the emotional state of the students and the emotional impact of this feedback should be considered. Emotion is an important feature of any learning experience, so this is not something to be avoided but use in a positive manner. Remember and highlight that you can probably learn more from mistakes is a way of addressing this educatively.


Planning for debriefing cannot be reduced to a set of simple instructions. Trial and error and perseverance are necessary. It is important to think about the questions that you ask, encouraging pupils to give longer answers. Teachers need to plan the analogies, stories and contexts to be used to encourage transfer.
Teachers should also encourage students to ask the questions, so that overtime the proportion of teacher questions reduces. This may not become equivocal, as the teacher will always have the overview and purpose of the enquiry in mind.

Below I aim to exemplify useful questions that can be used to debrief an activity. These are not sequential and you may decide to focus on only one area of questioning? You students or at least their actions will inform of this. Each and every question could be proceeded by asking why? Or How? Although a simple “Go on” will add to the open ended nature of debrief, and allow students to think about their own learning and experience rather than answer a teacher question.

Content questions

The table includes a few (overlapping) questions to draw out the learning that has taken place. The teachers role is to a) check and challenge accuracy b) clarify and highlight key learning points c) connecting ideas together d) compile the learning for the class. “Flipcharting” the ideas can help make this learning visible to all. It may also provide a start point for the next session .for example highlighting misconceptions

What have you found out?
What fact has led you to learn more facts?
What’s been the most useful thing learned in developing your understanding?
What have you learned that you did not know before?
What facts can you now link together?
What’s the most important fact learned?
What have you learned that has changed how you think about this problem/ idea/ concept?
Did anyone find a similar thing?
Did anyone find something different?
Do you still think that’s right?
What questions do you still want to ask about the concept?
What have you seen? what does it tell you?

Process /Learner skill question

What tools have been useful? How?
What was your most useful questions?
How did you go about reading the information?
Did you think of the questions first or did you allow the information to “guide” you? Do you think that was the most helpful?
How did you interact with the information?
What conversations helped you learn today?
What was the moment when you realised that you had learned something/ corrected your previous ideas?
Did anyone double check their work, see something missing and go back to correct it?How often did you reflect?
How did you attempt to join ideas together?
How (often) did you use the success criteria?
What strategies have been helpful? Eg drafting

But these can be more specific about a particular skill.

How did you set about...
How did thinking like that help you....
What made you decide that this skill was going to be helpful?
How would you get better at..

Or even Science specific.

How do you know your test was fair?
Why do you trust the data you have produced?
How do you know your data answers your question?
Was your data precise enough to be helpful?
Does the evidence support each
What assumptions have we made?

Learner attribute questions

How did you get unstuck?
How did you avoid/manage distractions?
How did you plan your work?
How did your motivation change over the session?
How did you respond to problems?
How did you get yourself interested in this work?
How did you manage your time?
How did your behaviour affect your own/ others performance?


Although a lot of the strategies and question here are metacognitive in nature, specific strategies will only enhance your students experience.
Specific questions that run along side a particular procedure or task, can facilitate this. For example while taking measurements asking How accurate are you being? How many decimal places have you recorded? Have you recorded the data accurately? Will train the students to do this greater confidence and accuracy?

Wrapper activities, ie those that you start and end the session with can be used for a wider range of tasks. So asking What knowledge might be useful?
• How motivated are you today?
• How might you work out things for yourself?
• How will you mentally link what you see and what you are learning throughout the lesson?

Will help set the students of in the right direction, rephrasing these at the end will help students visulaise the strategies used.

Teacher observation and record keeping

Teacher time should be split between supporting students and observing students. Observation should be intense and detailed notes should be kept for debrief purposes. These should include quotes, who was interacting with who and how. What resources where being used and how? What questions were being asked and who were they asked of. Collecting numerical data, also provides a reflective mirror for students to consider the learning taking place. So number of students on task, number of procedural questions asked, number of smiles/points/ nods of heads can reveal something useful to the students. The timing of the activity should also be recorded, as this will help contextualise the feedback. An occasional snapshop picture of what each individual is doing will also bring a different perspective. Likewise the use of video and photograph to capture behaviours and interactions are invaluable . Before and after feedback scenarios can be used to demonstrate the progress being made by the class.
This allows spontaneity and responsiveness to the situation unfolding around you, but also had grist to your mill when debriefing students. It also ensures that you feedback is non judgemental, an important emotional.
Classroom structures and procedures
It important that students are debriefed together, so arranging the furniture to facilitate the conversation will help. So a circle of chairs is the obvious answer. Ensure that all students are included is important, do not start the debriefing until they are quiet and included.
Ideally these will become self managing in some respects but teachers need a purpose to each debrief, although allow space for other ideas to come to the fore. Praise piggy backing on ideas, and encourage the use of protocols to manage this situation. For reticent students (or groups) you may occasionally want to take turns around the circle, allowing a 30 second think time after ask a question will reduce the stress of having to respond. Although I would not advertise it, accept a pass from students, expect them to contribute to the classroom community. Teachers therefore need to establish a No Put down Zone so that they are free to express their opinions.
The simple procedure of asking a question before nominating a student to respond, encourages all students to think and reflect and prepare to respond. All the usual good practice of wait time after a question has been asked and a student response should be utilise by the teacher and trained into the students.
Intervening without interrupting
Post it notes with either prompts or observations can be placed in front of students. These can reinforce or challenge behaviour ( in its widest sense).
Alternatively, hosting small meeting with groups of students will allow you to pass information on which is then disseminated by these students. This can be content or procedural.
Simply writing down quotes and displaying them in the class can provide ongoing feedback to the learners. Although you may want to discuss ways forward from this.
Ticking, crossing or smiley facing pre agreed success criteria can also provide ongoing feedback. By placing this in a prominent position students can quickly be sensitized to its use and the feedback being provided.
Reflective practices.
Teachers may want to set a selection of questions for students to respond to in writing on their own, before a debrief takes place. Students will therefore be better prepared to respond, and less likely to adhere to a response a peer has given.
Alternatively giving students a choice and encouraging extended writing can also be very productive.
1. Describe your experience of....
Now respond to at least 2 of these questions:
2. What thinking processes did you use?
3. Were you successful? Why?
4. What problems did you overcome? How did you do this?
5. Did you think creatively? How did you do this?
6. What skills have you developed over this challenge?
7. If you were to do this again what would you do differently?

Target setting questions

The final part of a debrief should look to move the students forward.
What’s the next step in this project?
What will you do differently next time?
What do you need to make this task easier?
How could you solve these problems?
What areas are you still finding difficult?
Do you need to redo any sections?
Do we need another point of view?