Debriefing Techniques – the Art of Guided Reflection

Simulation without debriefing is really just an expensive way of either making learners feel badly about themselves or allowing learners to practice performing poorly. This is why the theory behind debriefing is so important.

Debriefing is one of the most amazing teaching tools available to an instructor. Debriefing allows insight into a learner’s thought process such that an instructor can tailor teaching to a learner’s specific needs. Kolb’s learning cycle1 and Schonn’s description of the Reflective Practitioner2 allow us to see why debriefing is such a useful tool. We must actively reflect on an experience to learn from it; debriefing allows educators to help guide that reflection.

PEARLS Framework

While debriefing is arguably the most important component of simulation education, it is also a difficult skill to acquire. Eppich and Cheng3 have published an excellent approach to debriefing that reviews many of the key steps a novice simulation educator should aim to follow. They have called it the PEARLS approach (Promoting Excellence and Reflective Learning in Simulation). We will review its four phases here.

1. Reactions Phase

This is where learners are invited to express their raw feelings about the case. Often, learners will do this without a formal invitation (for example, you may hear initial reactions while walking from the simulator to the debriefing room). It is important to invite all learners to have a chance to vent during this stage.

2. Description Phase

This phase begins by asking a learner to describe what they think the case was about. This allows the educator and the learners to see if they are on the same page. Often, this leads to important issues for discussion during the next phase.

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3. Analysis Phase

Here, the educator must tailor their style of debriefing to suit both the learners in the room and the time available for the debriefing. This phase is what educators often think about when they envision debriefing. Essentially, the analysis phase is where learners can go through guided reflection.

+/Δ Method

There are two common styles of guided reflection described. The first is the +/Δ method. This involves probing learners as to what went well (the +) and what could be improved or changed for the future (the Δ). Many who are new to debriefing find themselves turning to this style at first.

Advocacy/Inquiry Method

A second, commonly used style is called advocacy/inquiry.4 This approach leads to incredible insights into the knowledge and performance of the learners. It can be somewhat more challenging to execute well. The basic premise is that one must first describe a noted performance gap. This is followed by a question as to the learner’s frame of mind at the time of the performance. The learner’s answer leads the instructor as to what learning points may need to be addressed. Sometimes, the entire room of learners is unsure of a next appropriate step in management. In this case, the debriefer must simply provide directed teaching. In other cases, the learner has made a slight cognitive error. Often, these can be addressed through facilitated discussion with other learners.

4. Summary Phase

Once the group has gone through all the desired learning objectives in the analysis phase, it is imperative that the instructor guides a review of key points related to the objectives. If time is short, the instructor can provide the summary himself. If time is more abundant, it can be useful to have the learners go through their key learning points.

As we can see, a fair amount of effort is required to facilitate an excellent debrief. With frameworks like the PEARLS approach, experienced and inexperienced educators alike have a practical means upon which to build their debriefing skills.

What tips and tricks do you use in your debriefing?


  1. Kolb DA. Experiential earning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; 1984.
  2. Schon D. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Practice. New York: Basic Books. 1983.
  3. Eppich, W., Cheng, A. Promoting excellence and reflective learning in simulation (PEARLS). Simul Healthc. 2015:1. doi:10.1097/SIH.0000000000000072.
  4. Rudolph, JW., Simon R., Rivard P., Dufresne RL., Raemer, DB. Debriefing with good judgment: combining rigorous feedback with genuine inquiry. Anesthesiol Clin. 2007;25(2):361-376.

One thought on “Debriefing Techniques – the Art of Guided Reflection

  1. Great info! In addition to improved learning and performance, satisfied participants become advocates and thus promote the sim program throughout the organization. Unfortunately, when they are not satisfied, the opposite happens.


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