The Art of Debriefing for Intercultural Learning

May 13, 2019

In last month’s blog post, I shared some of my favorite resources for intercultural learning activities. This month, I’m following up with a discussion about the importance of effectively debriefing those activities and other intercultural learning experiences. Because the learning really is in the debrief.

This is true whether the “activity” is an intercultural experience—such as a site visit during study abroad or an intercultural dialogue session on your campus—or an in-class activity such as one pulled from the resources mentioned last month.

The activity is where you set the stage. The debrief is where you dig into the learning. 

Why Debriefing is So Important

Experiential Learning Theory tells us that experience alone does not lead to the kind of deep, transformational learning that is the goal of intercultural education. As Kolb (1984) says, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

To help students transform experience into deep learning, we must help them move around the Experiential Learning Cycle—learning in multiple different ways. Not only do they need to have an experience, they then need to reflect on that experience. Next, they should draw meaning from the experience, by making connections to concepts and theories or other experiences. And finally, they need to test out their new learning by putting it into practice, thereby having a new experience.

Adapted from Kolb, 1984.

The Risks of Insufficient Debriefing

My experience leads me to believe that when it comes to international education experiences, educators often incorporate an element of reflection into their programs, but typically don’t take the next step to help students make sense of and apply their new learning. They might incorporate a reflective element like journaling or blogging, for example, without guidance or feedback to push students beyond reflection.

To me, doing an activity without properly debriefing is a little like throwing paint at a canvas (with your eyes closed). You’re hoping for beautiful results, but are more apt to produce a whole lot of nothing.

I can think of many times when I’ve participated in an activity that had little or no debrief. The facilitator seemed to assume we got the point. Or we were simply too pressed for time to discuss the activity. Sometimes I am left wondering, ‘What’s the point?’ Other times I take something away from it, but wonder, ‘Is that really what the facilitator wanted us to get out of this?’

But what is the point of doing an activity if you don’t have time to ensure participants learn something from it?

The Experiential Learning Cycle as a Debriefing Guide

The Experiential Learning Cycle provides a useful framework for debriefing. Typically, students are starting with a concrete experience. In such cases, we need to frame our debriefing questions to help them reflect on what happened, make connections and draw tentative hypotheses, then test out these hypotheses.

We can ask questions such as:

  • What happened?
  • How did you feel?
  • Does this remind you of anything else you’ve learned or experienced?
  • What have you learned?
  • What will you do with this new learning?

Be ready for surprises, as one of the coolest things about debriefing is that oftentimes participants will have insights that you’d never thought of before. The goal is not necessarily to make your one specific point, but to ensure learning is happening and that learning is being shared and built on.

The point of the debrief is not necessarily to make sure all the participants take away the exact same thing—they won’t. That’s the beauty of intercultural learning. However, you do want to ensure most of your learners take away something of value—a new way of seeing things, a connection they hadn’t made before, or a question to consider. And you want to ensure that you have a sense of what that is, and that it’s not completely contrary to the goals of the activity.

That being said, I still think it can be helpful to know some of the key points you’d like to make or insights that you hope an activity will spur. If these don’t come up in the discussion, you might consider reframing your questions or bringing them up yourself if they are important enough.

In other words, your job is to balance being the "sage on the stage" (sharing intercultural knowledge when appropriate) and the "guide on the side" (facilitating students' intercultural learning journeys).

A Few Personal Examples

I used to teach a semester-long course called Communication and the Intercultural Re-Entry at the University of Minnesota for students who had recently returned from study abroad or another significant intercultural experience. One semester, a young woman approached me after the first day of class and said she wasn’t sure if the class would be a good fit for her because she hadn’t had a very positive experience abroad and she didn’t want to spend a semester listening to other students go on about the great experiences they’d had. I assured her the course would be about much more than that and encouraged her to stick with it, explaining that she’d likely find it helpful to spend some time debriefing her experience abroad.

She stayed in the course, and at the end of the semester she told me that taking the time to deeply reflect on and make sense of her experience had helped her turn a negative experience abroad into a positive learning opportunity.

In her final paper, a reflection and analysis of her own pre-departure through re-entry experience, she wrote: “Through weekly, if not daily, reflection on the situation these last fourteen weeks, I have begun to understand many of the feelings and anxieties I was wrestling with for so long, and just now started to make sense of my intercultural experience… Since taking this class, I can reflect and now have a more positive view of my time [abroad].”

That’s the power of debriefing.

When I facilitate train-the-trainer workshops (which is most of what I do), I actually debrief everything twice. I ask educators to participate in the activities we do as learners, and we debrief the activity thinking about their own intercultural learning. Then, we do an educator/trainer debrief, discussing the activity itself—the goal, the competencies it helps develop, how they might use it, how various audiences might respond, etc.

Both of these debriefs are essential for drawing out important take-aways for my participants.

Consider this:  If you were participating in one of my train-the-trainer workshops, would you rather:

a) we do twelve activities in the day, even if you are unsure of the point or how to use them effectively; or

b) we do eight activities, and you not only learned something from them and are left with insightful questions, but you also feel comfortable facilitating them with your students?

I’m guessing you’d prefer to learn something through the activities and feel capable of using those activities in your own work. Otherwise, it might be a fun day, but would likely have little to no lasting impact.

So next time you assume that your learners will get the point from the activity, or you are tempted to pack more into your curriculum and skimp on the debrief, remember:  do less, but make the most of what you do by debriefing effectively. Instead of doing six activities, do four and make sure you mine them for deep learning.

In Conclusion

I want to emphasize that debriefing is more art than science. It takes practice to learn how to effectively accompany others on their learning journey. But you can only get better by practicing. And this is a critical skill to have if you want to help others develop their intercultural competence. So even if the ambiguity debriefing can produce makes you a bit uncomfortable, embrace this and get practicing!

Please Share!

Using the Experiential Learning Cycle is just one possible framework for debriefing. There are many others. I’d love to hear about how you debrief, any tips you have for others, the benefits you’ve seen from effective debriefing, or what you’ve learned through your own practice and experience. Please share in the comments section below!


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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