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Debrief Every Time, Part I

This post is a part of the series Design Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning.

This blog series about the design challenges in peer learning has made several big claims so far:

  1. Enough of the right practice at the right time leads to improvement.
  2. Spending time coaching peer learning elevates the whole conversation; by contrast, expert feedback lifts only a single draft.
  3. Instructors can see a clear signal of learning during deliberate practice when students share a small bit of writing and get feedback based on a targeted set of criteria.

These claims are part of a larger argument that designing a feedback-rich environment moves the needle on learning in a reliable and scalable way. Scaffolding the intellectual moves using activities in which students learn from each other puts them in the zone of proximal development so that they can take the next step.

Here, in part one, we make an argument for the importance of debriefing to the peer learning process; in part two, we will offer four strategies for creating an effective debriefing.

Part 1: Debriefing and Evidence-Based Teaching

When instructors design peer learning to capture evidence about what students can and can’t do, they are better able to provide just-in-time coaching far ahead of grading. They can see learning as it unfolds. Coaching or debriefing involves telling students what we see when we watch them do the work and what they need to do improve. It helps instructors know what to teach next, and it helps students learn to make revision decisions.

Debriefing is critical because students don’t necessarily know how to act on the feedback they’ve received. Some students struggle to accept suggestions. It’s hard for them confront weaknesses in their work and to be confident that they can improve. If students have revised little in the past and gotten grades that satisfy them, they may not see the value in revision. Students may also not know how think through their peers’ suggestions. By talking with students about their feedback, instructors can help students develop the mindset and skills needed to revise well.

In this post, we encourage instructors to debrief each peer learning activity as a reflective practice in teaching and as a way to coach better learning. Being an evidence-based teacher takes us closer to students’ needs, their language, and their growth.

Design Challenge: Instructors are opaque about the thinking that leads to success.

Coaching students is hard because we know too much our about subject areas and often too little about the different paths students take to learn them. We’ve all had the experience of asking students to do something alone or in a group that they simply could not do. Usually the problem is that students lack the procedural knowledge necessary to complete a task that is routine to us. As Chris Reddy’s recent Edutopia blog post explains, it’s the “curse of knowledge.” We’ve forgotten the steps to take and the cues needed to navigate the task successfully. We just do it.

By studying students’ work in peer learning, however, we are better able to discern patterns in where and how they struggle (and struggling is part of learning).

When students can’t just do it, it’s easy to blame poor preparation, lack of motivation, ineffective study skills, or poor time management. By studying students’ work in peer learning, however, we are better able to discern patterns in where and how they struggle (and struggling is part of learning).

When we look for reasons why students struggle, we are better positioned to help all students improve. As we watch students do the work, we remember/discover the steps and cues that we have forgotten. Watching their practice attunes us to our own performance, allowing us to better articulate the thinking that goes on between versions of a draft. Debriefing challenges us to understand learners and learning in new ways.

Design Opportunity: Debriefing supports cognitive apprenticeship.

Articulating what students should think and do after a peer learning activity is critical. Remember that the task of reading others’ work and receiving feedback can be overwhelming. Given that cognitive load, it is hard for students to know how to make decisions:

  • Do you make the easy changes first or last?
  • How do you resolve contradictory feedback?
  • What if you disagree with the feedback?
  • How do you figure out what a reviewer meant?
  • What if you didn’t get any feedback you want to use?
  • Can you start over if your draft is way off track?

If instructors don’t help them work through these decisions, students are very likely to set the feedback aside and revise very little. To make peer learning powerful, instructors must lead students through the decision-making process that helps them turn feedback into a revision.

Debriefing should make students’ thinking and actions very explicit. This attention to invisible processes draws students into the cognitive apprenticeship model described more than two decades ago by Collins, Holum, and Brown (available from 21st Century Learning):

To make real differences in students’ skill, we need both to understand the nature of expert practice and to devise methods that are appropriate to learning that practice. To do this, we must first recognize that cognitive strategies are central to integrating skills and knowledge in order to accomplish meaningful tasks. . . . . We do not want to argue that cognitive apprenticeship is the only way to learn. Reading a book or listening to a lecture are important ways to learn, particularly in domains where conceptual and factual knowledge are central. Active listeners or readers, who test their understanding and pursue the issues that are raised in their minds, learn things that apprenticeship can never teach. To the degree that readers or listeners are passive, however, they will not learn as much as they would by apprenticeship, because apprenticeship forces them to use their knowledge. Moreover, few people learn to be active readers and listeners on their own, and that is where cognitive apprenticeship is critical–observing the processes by which an expert listener or reader thinks and practicing these skills under the guidance of the expert can teach students to learn on their own more skillfully. Even in domains that rest on elaborate conceptual and factual underpinnings, students must learn the practice or art of solving problems and carrying out tasks. And to achieve expert practice, some version of apprenticeship remains the method of choice. (12, emphasis ours)

As Collins et al. describe, passive learners become active learners through apprenticeship. In peer learning, students experience apprenticeship in several ways:

  • watching the performance of their slightly more capable peers
  • being the slightly more capable peer who is giving feedback to others
  • listening to instructors coach the class and individuals.

Because of these overlapping relationships, it’s useful to think of peer learning as being like a yoga studio. In the studio, everyone is practicing the same pose, but there’s a lot of variation too. Any student can look left at another student who is struggling in the basic posture and to the right at a student at an advanced level; in the next pose, the person to the left is at full extension while the one on the right keeps collapsing. Everyone gets a chance to show strength and struggle. The yogi helps everyone by insisting upon repetition: One perfect vinyasa leads to five or ten more. The yogi also helps the class approach repetition with the intention of deepening the practice. At the end, the yogi helps everyone feel good about what they can do on the mat while encouraging them to reach for more next time.

Like a yoga instructor watching the class, Eli offers engagement analytics that help instructors coach individuals and the whole class toward better feedback and revision. (photo credit: Flickr user ftmeade)

Like a good yoga session, debriefing should leave writers centered and open to more revision. The conversation after peer learning should help students look around at their peers and see both strength and struggle. Students recognize their instructor’s guiding presence in sequencing the practice, watching the class, and attending to individual needs. Debriefing helps students understand what the instructor values, how she knows something is good, and what adjustments are needed.

After debriefing, writers are ready to select helpful feedback, prioritize it, and reflect on how to revise their work. In Eli, a revision plan task scaffolds those actions and invites students to articulate their thoughts so that instructors can coach the thinking between drafts. In Eli, a revision plan creates this authentic record of learning:

  • the feedback writers got,
  • how helpful they thought it was,
  • whether the writer added it to the plan,
  • what priority it was given, and
  • what ideas writers have about how to revise.

From that record, engaging students in a cognitive apprenticeship is much easier because instructors can see more of the thinking students are doing. They can see writers’ decisions and intervene before revision. They can help writers deepen the skill practice by adjusting how they think about and act on feedback.

Bottom-line: Learning happens when looking backward and forward.

The goal of debriefing is to bring students’ attention back to their learning experience. By thinking about how the expert teacher and novice peers approached the task, learners engage in reflection and decision-making. They develop metacognition, which is the ability to think about their thinking processes. In a revision plan, students articulate that thinking. This metadiscourse—what students can tell themselves and others about their thinking processes—is the best evidence that students have learned something.

This metadiscourse—what students can tell themselves and others about their thinking processes—is the best evidence that students have learned something.

Talking to students about their work enhances metacognition and metadiscourse. Debriefing puts into words how students need to think about what’ve they’ve done and what needs to be done and how. It’s about helping students understand

  • what they aimed for and why,
  • how they did and why,
  • what’s next and why, and
  • when this same skill might be useful and why.

Such conversations increase the odds that students will be able to transfer the skill from this activity to others. Recent research on transfer in writing studies suggests that coaching for transfer begins by guiding students in recognizing how the skill relevant to this specific assignment might apply in future situations. Debriefing is the place to have that conversation.

An instructor’s debriefing of a peer learning activity helps students look backward to understand the draft they wrote in terms of the feedback they’ve received. It also helps them look forward to understand what they need to do to revise. It helps them look in the distance to see how this skill applies in other contexts. Instructors should debrief every time to close the loop on one peer learning activity and open it on the next.

Check out Part 2 of Debrief Every Time, Reconnaissance and Debriefing, coming on 9/22


  1. Collins, Allan, Ann Holum, and John Seely Brown. 1991. “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible.” American Educator 15 (3): 6–11. Reprinted and shared through Creative Commons by The 21st Century Learning Initiative.
  2. Reddy, Christopher. 2015. “The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About.” Blog. Edutopia. December 8.

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The post Debrief Every Time, Part I was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

Photo credit: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office

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