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Memorable Debriefs for Memory and Retention

By Susan Doctoroff Landay / May 2011

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Memorable Debriefs for Memory and Retention

May 11, 2011

After a two-day marketing conference I attended recently, a colleague asked cordially: "So, what are your top takeaways?"

I was exhausted from sitting, listening, and contemplating how I could apply all I learned to my own practice. My brain was so overloaded; I couldn't quickly gather my thoughts to provide an answer.

And yet, as a learning consultant, I know that articulating "next steps" is the most critical question to ask and answer, to ensure that the time spent in learning leads to changes in either thinking or behavior. After all, that's the point, right?

Since then, I've read a number of articles, books and group discussions suggesting a variety of ways that learners can process what they learned and focus on important points to remember.

While repetition is the key theme, no matter what resource you consult, the following two steps are critical for imprinting the learning into your memory bank. Not surprisingly, both involve repetition. The old clich�, "Use it or lose it," has stuck around for good reason.

1. The Debrief—a time for processing and discussion whereby you review, experience and extract key learning points.
2. The Commitment—when you consciously make the effort to commit the information to memory and, if appropriate, take action in implementing changes.

The Debrief

The optimal method you employ for debriefing a learning event will certainly depend on your topic. Presented here are a range of ideas that will likely get your creative juices flowing. Thanks to those who submitted suggestions via LinkedIn.

  • What? So What? Now What?
    The focus of these questions is: What have you learned? So what, what is the significance of the learning? Now what are you going to do or change going forward?

  • Start. Stop. Continue. Change.
    On the last page of the workbook have attendees write four words: start, stop, continue, change. After the training ask participants to go to that page and respond to those four prompts: Based on their learning what are they going to start doing and stop doing? What will the continue doing? How will they change up what they're doing?

    This helps them focus on what they've learned and what they're actually going to do when they get back to work or home. [Submitted online by Dian Anderson]

  • Closing Circle
    An end-of-the-school-day ritual whereby the teacher sets aside 10 minutes for some calm reflection on the day. The rules are: everyone takes part; they come empty-handed, without backpacks or coats; they are asked to reflect on the day and set goals for the next day, celebrate efforts and accomplishments, and; join together in a playful cheer or song. [Januszka, D.L. and Vincent. K. "Closing Circle," Responsive Classroom. February 2011]

  • Works Well. Do Differently.
    This is a useful model for team exercises and soft skills experiential learning. With these two simple questions, facilitators can help their groups to explore what was working and where they can do better. The key is that it frames this self-critical exercise in very positive language.

  • A HAH!
    At the end of the day (or hour), have each person (or team) record their "a hah" learning points on one of the several flip chart pages posted around the room. Encourage group sharing and discussion about those points. [Submitted online by Terri Daniels]

  • Circle. Square. Triangle.
    After being presented with new content, asks students to jot down three things:
    1. Circle: What's still going around in your head? What do you still not understand?
    2. Square: What's squared away? What do you really understand?
    3. Triangle: What three things could you use in your life, work, or studies?
    [Dirksen, D. "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction," Phi Delta Kappan. April 2011]

  • Points to Ponder
    At the start of the training tell your group to collect one more "points to ponder" over the course of the session. Towards the end of the session, ask that they each share their top three points to ponder. Sharing should include: why these points were selected, how do they plan to implement that learning.

    Following the discussion, engage the group in a conversation about how they can make it happen: What resources they would need in order to move forward? What time frame would be workable? [Submitted online by Aliya K]

  • One Thing
    Rather than focusing on a whole slew of learning points, have participants answer this question for themselves: "What is the one thing I learned, which if I start doing now, can make a big difference to my work/output/contribution?"

The Commitment

If the purpose of the Debrief is to extract the key learning points from the experience, the focus of the Commitment is twofold: to imprint the learning into long-term memory and use it, either as a basis for further learning or to affect behavior change and performance improvement.

Commitment to Memory
Many brain-compatible learning sources tout the benefits of common memory tricks such as development of mnemonics, identification of useful analogies to relate new learning to something they already know, or selective note-taking or underlining. These are all important methods to "commit" new information to memory.

Commitment to Change
After new learning is sealed into your mind, either through repetition, mnemonics, story-telling, or emotional engagement with the material, the challenge is using the learning to affect change. Here are a couple of ideas to ensure that learning is taken back into the workplace.

  • Promises, Promises.
    At the start of class distribute a 3x5 card to every participant. Explain that by the end of the workshop, you'd like each of them to write down one to three ideas they "promise" to do when they go back at work. At the end of the session, ask them to complete their "promise(s)" and share it with other participants. This gives them added incentive to follow through on their commitment to change behavior. [Submitted online by Suzanne Whitehead]

  • Band-Aid or Surgery?
    At the end of a review, discuss what it would take for learners to put into practice all that they learned. Ask them if their ideas can be put into action. If yes, great. If not, discuss why not. What practices, attitudes, or systems inhibit or enable implementation of new ideas. In order to implement changes, do other processes need to fixed? Can they be fixed quickly and easily with a virtual Band-Aid, or is there a hemorrhaging issue that needs more radical attention in order for the learning to take affect?


Whether learning happens online or in a classroom, the lesson is the same, key learning points should be repeated, repeated, and repeated. Learning experiences should be "debriefed" in order to call the learner's attention to the top learning points. And before concluding the experience, facilitators should ask: "What will prevent you or enable you to put the learning into action?"

About the Author

Susan Doctoroff Landay is the president of Trainers Warehouse. She is responsible for all Internet strategy, mailing, design, and other promotional efforts and oversees customer service activities. Her primary goal is to make training and learning more fun and effective.


  • Mon, 24 Jun 2013
    Post by JTS

    I like the way you do the "mechanics" of the session or class, and, I could see where, over a longer-duration series-of-courses, (even a semester's worth) that these "DEBRIEF" and "RETENTION" ideals could be incorporated over a few months of training/learning/education. Not to be too whimsical about it, but, "thought-provoking" in education comes to mind, when trying to think of my own title for this story/lesson. I found some interesting techniques in coercing my brain to focus, retain, speculate and then, reiterate while still maintaining the "useful" and sifting through the "possibly-unnecessary". Thank you for your insight into the learning possibilities of DEBRIEF and RETENTION.