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Apr 03, 2018 Karen Vieth

Making Virtual Learning Stick with Activity Debriefs

How to use debriefs in virtual classrooms We’ve been using virtual classroom technologies for close to 20 years now. Unfortunately, we are still holding on to a content model that insists the most important outcome is getting through all of the slides.

This webinar approach to content delivery is perhaps the most ineffective way to get information out to the world. Few of us have the motivation or concentration to focus on 60 minutes of lecture.

And, most importantly, we know that learning only "sticks" after learners have a chance to apply what they’ve learned and then reflect on the experience.

Reflection can occur in the virtual classroom. One of the most impactful ways to accomplish this is by conducting a thoughtful and meaningful debrief after practice activities. Debriefing is where the real learning takes place in my opinion. It’s where the proverbial "rubber meets the road," because it allows for reflection and also starts to instill a sense of accountability in the learners.

Debriefing allows learners to process what they just did, in context with any content that may have been delivered, and connect it to real work. Connecting learning to real work applications is the foundation of modern learning design. It demonstrates relevance to adult learners, which can be very motivating to learners who would otherwise struggle through lecture heavy content. And, it’s that connection that makes the learning stick.

While connecting to the outside world, effective debriefs also insist that learners look inward. They need to ask questions of themselves such as:

  • "How did I use the tools that were provided and when might I use them back on the job?"
  • "What did I struggle with, and what would lessen that struggle?"
  • "What was missing?"
  • "When might I use this technique or tool or concept in the future?"

As your learners find answers to these questions, they start to see the application of the tool or the technique or the content back on the job. By practicing and reflecting on content, you increase the chances that learners will be successful back on the job when recalling what they’ve learned or when things go wrong.

Here is a list of common, yet powerful, debriefing techniques that you can use in your virtual classroom. Try them all. Some are meant to debrief simple activities; some are more complex.

Debriefing Techniques

  • Gallery walk - Learners walk through the work produced by their peers and are asked to draw conclusions, make observations, or acknowledge something new.
  • Pair & Share – Learners are paired up to share ideas and/or brainstorm. They may be asked to come to a consensus or limit discussion to an idea-generating activity. Each pair shares what they worked on.
  • Share Out - Each group is given an opportunity to “share out” the results of their group activity with the rest of the class.
  • Teachback – This is a great way to debrief a jigsaw activity. A jigsaw activity is an activity where each group is doing something different (i.e. researching different aspects of a problem, developing different parts to a business plan, or building different modules to a course, etc.). Groups then come together with rest of class and each shares what was learned, discovered, or developed, etc. In doing so, they teach the other groups. Each group learns something new and different from the other groups. When all of the groups come together, they complete the puzzle!
  • Quick Toss – The facilitator randomly calls on learners (or tosses them the ball, so to speak), and asks them to share the results of their work. This method can be used for both independent and group activities.

Some debrief (using any technique) is necessary for learning to stick. If you start running short on time, skip some content, but don't skip the debrief. It’s better to internalize a small of amount of information than to gloss over a longer lecture.


Published by Karen Vieth April 3, 2018
Karen Vieth