Debriefing Sessions:  Opportunities for Collaborative Reflection

Mary E. Henry

Montclair State University

Dr. Henry is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Family and Child Studies Program, Department of Human Ecology, Montclair State University


There is an increasing call for colleges and universities to “confront disengagement from democracy . . . ” (Williams, 2001, p. 13) by examining their missions and goals as well as by committing resources to efforts that promote social responsibility. In other words, higher education is being challenged to find ways to enable university students to be good citizens, active participants in a democracy and engaged in socially responsible learning (Faculty Advisory Committee, 1998). Although students know they can contribute to a community and to others by providing service (Eyler & Giles, 1999), they are often unaware of the community assets they are helping to enhance one semester at a time. It is not uncommon for students to feel that their voices and actions have little overall impact on the well-being of their own community or society at large. When engaged in service to the community, students often have a sense that they cannot influence the public domain. They do not envision themselves as being capable of making contributions that influence programs and policy over time. Students frequently indicate that others, the people in charge, are the ones who influence policy and change. Carefully constructed debriefing sessions empower students to see that their efforts will be recognized and that they can have an impact on the common good.


As they assist in building capacity in local communities, service-learning courses can “teach students how to deliberate in public . . . . and teach . . . students contemplation, introspection, mindfulness, and imagination as they become grounded in the community’s politics.” They can also learn various “skills of deliberation . . . which force . . . [them] to go beyond . . . personal opinions” (Williams, 2001, p. 15). According to Eyler and Giles (1999), “a key element of an educative experience is engagement in worthwhile activity. The student who is trying to solve a real problem with real consequences” (p. 91) needs to acquire more information as well as identify various approaches and methods of addressing problems that have been used with positive results in other communities. By gathering relevant knowledge about issues of concern, students will become empowered. The students along with community partners, faculty, and service-learning staff can benefit substantially when they collaborate “to create mechanisms and trust to support the value of sharing” (Mitstifer, 2000, p. 1). Through service-learning courses, students can also learn about leadership principles as they participate in developing and supporting relationships between the campus and community partners and work together to share information and embrace a shared vision (Mitstifer, 2000, 2001). Another benefit is to become involved in policy formation and thus experience first hand “how complex social issues are” (Eyler & Giles, 1999, p. 91). Debriefing sessions are one form of reflection that can be utilized to problem-solve and to accomplish together what students, community partners, faculty, and service-learning staff cannot accomplish alone. (For more information about the additional forms of reflection, refer to the article, “Reflection Matters: Connecting Theory to Practice in Service-Learning Courses by Mary E. Henry, which is also included in this issue of Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM.)

Students benefit when they learn in context (Joint Task Force, 1998). It is important for them to evaluate “programs and hold agencies accountable for results” (Eyler & Giles, 1999, p. 96). Carefully constructed debriefing sessions expand the context through which students experience, first hand, how difficult it can be to evaluate program goals, operations, and outcomes. They are also exposed to the intricacies of implementing change in policies and practices when appropriate. Preparing for debriefing sessions provides students with significant opportunities to:

Students are challenged to consider the validity of what they know, reflect on it in light of new information, and potentially transform their perspectives (Eyler & Giles, 1999).

The Debriefing Process

Debriefing may be informal or formal. Informal debriefing can occur through one-on-one, small group, or whole-class discussions. When formal debriefing sessions are utilized, a leader or facilitator encourages, and in some cases directs, cooperative inquiry into the participants’ feelings about and their understanding of the service experience as well as the greater social issues being addressed. This can be accomplished by developing a deliberately structured debriefing process, one in which there is shared “power, authority and responsibility for learning” (Pearson & Smith, 1985, p. 76) and one in which all parties are committed to the belief that debriefing plays an important role in experiential learning. The role of the leader is to encourage all parties to articulate ideas, listen respectfully, and communicate openly, making it essential for the leader to be skilled in organizing, group process, and conflict resolution. The leader is responsible for creating an environment that stimulates trust and “critical knowing” and for ensuring that the session ends with a sense that something has been achieved. 

According to Kaagan, (1999) there are three steps in the debriefing process: ”what happened, implications and applications” (p. 22). In step one, students, partners, faculty, and service-learning program staff explain what happened during the service experience. Accurately describing what happened may not be easy because people do not view things in the same way. This process often enables students to witness how different constituencies view “what happened” through different sets of eyes. In step two, all parties examine and interpret the implications of what happened. These interpretations “can legitimately be drawn from the experience, particularly in terms of the functioning of organizations and the practice of leadership” (p. 22). In step three, all parties determine “what participants should do differently from here on because of what they just learned.” Students, community partners, faculty, and service-learning staff must agree to listen to and respect the perspectives of others. They should also be prepared to reexamine their own knowledge in light of new information. Additionally, good questions must be developed before the debriefing session, and good judgment is required to “envision future considerations” (p. 23). Thus, the debriefing process enables the participants to describe the immediate past and make meaning from what happened. It is a process that enables all parties to look to the future, engage in collaborative reflection, and make assessments after thoughtful deliberation and consideration.

Why Use Debriefing Sessions?

Debriefing sessions enable participants to assess what happened, examine the impact, and evaluate whether or not the goals and objectives of the community organization have been addressed as a result of the way in which the service experience was implemented. Debriefing sessions also provide feedback that enables:

A Case Study: Partnering with the Montclair Public Schools to Address the Academic Achievement Gap

Since the Spring of 1999, in all but one semester, I have taught the service-learning sections of the course entitled, Field Experiences in Family and Child Services. The purpose of the course is to provide students in the Human Ecology Department’s Family and Child Studies concentrations with an understanding of organizational and operational structures, public policy issues, advocacy, community assets, and the wide range of service programs for individuals and families. In this course students work on the community identified problem—reducing the academic achievement gap in elementary school-age children—and have the opportunity to engage in socially responsible learning. At the beginning of the semester the students, public school teachers, and university faculty related to the After-School Tutorial Program attend an orientation session led by staff from Montclair State University’s Service-Learning Program and the Assistant Superintendent and/or the Director of Curriculum for the Montclair Public Schools. All parties consider this orientation session to be an integral part of the literacy partnership, enabling the students, teachers, and faculty to:

At this point, the active part of the students’ role in the partnership begins.

Throughout the semester, in addition to the traditional course requirements, the students provide two hours of weekly assistance in the After-School Tutorial Program, helping with homework and strengthening the children’s reading and math skills. Although the students are all engaged in the same tutorial program, they work in selected school and community sites on different days of the week, assist children in grades kindergarten to five, and assist teachers who employ various instructional methods and strategies. Thus, it is no surprise that the students have varied intentional and unintentional learning experiences. Because “experience happens; it is unavoidable,” what becomes the “problem for teachers and students is how to make meaning out of . . . experience” (Morton, 1998, p. 3). When authentic experiences are used as text for intentional learning, the experience is “transformed into working, usable knowledge.” Specific assignments and structured reflection activities are employed to deliberately draw meaning from experience, assist in “the discovery and internalization of knowledge” (p. 9), challenge previously held beliefs, encourage thoughtful discussion, and prepare students for the end of semester debriefing session. Students examine various local, state, and national organizational efforts to reduce the academic achievement gap. They conduct interviews and learn how to advocate for resources needed in the local community. The overarching goals of this work are to enable students to gain a broader appreciation for the depth and breadth of the social issues and problems related to gaps in academic achievement as well as to practice listening to, considering, and reflecting on experience in group settings. Students are able to improve their existing skills for obtaining and constructing knowledge as well as draw upon the expertise of the university’s service-learning staff and teachers and administrators from the partner organization. Throughout the course students prepare for participating in the debriefing session.

Students Collaborating to Prepare for the Debriefing Session. For approximately three weeks at the end of the semester they work in groups to prepare detailed, written descriptions of:

In addition to refining the list of questions they plan to ask at the debriefing session, every student takes on one or more responsibilities: from leading the meeting, to preparing resources and physical space, and to documenting the proceedings in writing or through pictures. Because most of the above information needed for planning the debriefing session has already been captured in reflection and homework assignments, students bring those items to class on the days they work on the documents. They prepare drafts of the above information, which are then assembled by student workers and/or graduate assistants. The students review and continue correcting the drafts in subsequent classes until the final documents are approved by the group. Because the same format has been used to capture the content, it is possible to compare the information tabulated from one semester to the next, thus providing a longitudinal perspective on program participants, schedules, resources, stability, and change. 

The Roles of Faculty, Community Partners, and Service-Learning Support Staff. Faculty members are responsible for facilitating student learning and need to create educational environments that account for the developmental stage of the learner. According to Mitstifer (2004), there are two approaches to learning. One approach “concentrates on remembering as much as possible” while the other “focuses on meaning—grasping the message, engaging with underlying ideas” (p. 1). Debriefing sessions provide challenging opportunities for students to learn for understanding and for personal growth.

On a more practical level, the faculty convener for the debriefing session is responsible for inviting the participants, arranging for parking, finding meeting space, securing refreshments, as well as ensuring that students perform their various responsibilities. The Service-Learning Program staff and the representatives from the Board of Education are responsible for providing the “big picture” by describing the program’s operation and funding sources, responding to student questions, and recognizing student contributions by awarding certificates. At the end of the school year, the Assistant Superintendent (and/or the Director of Curriculum) from the Board of Education conducts a debriefing session for teachers, the service-learning coordinator, and a faculty representative. Remarkably, the suggestions made at these meetings tend to be very similar to those made at the student debriefing sessions.

Conducting and Documenting the Debriefing Session: Goals for Students. Engaging students in preparing for and conducting debriefing sessions enables them to actually experience the effort involved in planning, preparing for, documenting, and evaluating a community program. As they revise drafts of the materials, students increase their awareness of the ways in which information can be composed and misconstrued. They learn how to prepare comments, welcome guests, and develop concise questions to elicit thoughtful feedback. Students also learn how important it is to accurately document the discussion. Three or more students take notes during the debriefing session and give them to a recorder who consolidates all of the information into minutes. The minutes are revised and edited to ensure that they are accurate and formatted appropriately. Generally one or two students also document the meeting by taking photographs that can later be used for a number of purposes.

Disseminating the Content of the Debriefing Session. Archived debriefing materials are regularly shared with students to enable them to understand that they are participating in an effort begun in 1996. Students learn which program enhancements grew out of recommendations and discussions at various debriefing sessions and how students, teachers, administrators, faculty, and university staff before them have contributed to the After-School Tutorial Program. Materials developed for debriefing sessions will continue to be shared at national disciplinary conferences and the annual meetings of experiential education associations. This sharing of debriefing materials with others in traditional scholarly venues enables faculty to present what they have learned, provide assistance to others, and receive critical feedback.

The Value of the Debriefing Experience for Faculty. Teaching a service-learning course is very demanding. In addition to specific content, faculty must also integrate reflection assignments and be involved in on-going communications with community partners through field meetings, site visits, and informal discussions. In addition, faculty must collaborate with the university’s Service-Learning Program staff to support the university’s mission, coordinate student placements, and address issues of mutual concern. Because students are in the field, things happen. At times they find themselves in uncomfortable situations, resulting in more work for the faculty and students alike. However, the rewards far exceed the efforts. Because the learning process is authentic, students will remember what they learned long after the semester ends; they drew meaning from their personal and collective participation in the service project and debriefing session. In service-learning courses, faculty members are challenged to use teaching models that emphasize the joint discovery and construction of knowledge rather than a model that simply relies on the transmission of information (Barr & Tagg, 1995). By the end of the course, students have witnessed citizenship in action. They have observed how community assets can be increased and sustained through collective efforts. They have learned that their voices can be heard and that individual citizens can contribute to the well-being of individuals and families. The debriefing sessions reinforce student ownership of the learning process and emphasize enduring lessons. 


Colleges and universities can confront student disengagement by developing challenging service-learning partnerships with community organizations to address important social issues. This paper describes the role of debriefing sessions in encouraging scholarship, promoting citizenship, and advancing good practice. When students are challenged to combine service with learning they have opportunities to both support and influence the operation and expansion of meaningful social and educational programs. They become active and engaged citizens. When faculty members integrate traditional assignments, nontraditional assignments, and reflection activities into their service-learning courses, they move from a teaching paradigm to a learning paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995). When students, community partners, faculty, and service-learning staff collaborate to reflect on learning, prepare for meaningful and structured debriefing sessions, and make recommendations that revise, expand, and/or improve services in the community, they are fostering the common good.


Barr, R.B. & Tagg, J. (1995, November/December). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27, 13-25.

Eyler, J & Giles, D.E. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Faculty Advisory Committee of the Lowell Bennion Center of the Universiy of Utah. (1998). Educating the good citizen: Service-Learning in higher education - University of Utah. In E. Zlotkowski (Ed.), Successful service-learning   programs: New models of excellence in higher education (Appendix J, pp. J1-J13).  Boston, MA: Anker Publishing Company.

Joint Task Force on Student Learning. (1998, June). Powerful partnerships: A shared responsibility for learning.  A joint report from the American Association for Higher Education, the American College Personnel Association, and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Retrieved March 17, 1999 from

Kaagan, S. S. (1999). Leadership games: Experiential learning for organizational development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications, Inc.

Mitstifer, D. (2000, October). Knowledge management (KM). Kappa Omicron Nu Dialogue, 10(2), 1

Mitstifer, D. (2001, June). Knowledge management: A durable asset. Kappa Omicron Nu Dialogue, 10(3), 5.

Mitstifer, D. I. (2004, July). What’s it all about: Learning in the human sciences. Kappa Omicron Nu Dialogue, 13(2), 1-2.

Morton, K. (Ed.). (1998). Foundations of experiential education. (Foundations Document Committee). Available from the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE). Originally published in Raleigh, NC: NSEE assisted by the Feinstein Institute for Public Service, Providence College, Providence, RI.

Pearson, M. & Smith, D. (1985).  Debriefing in experience-based learning. In D. Boud, R. Keogh & D. Walker (Eds.), Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp. 69-84). Kogan Page, London: Nichols Publishing Company.

Williams, D. (2001, Fall). Political engagement and service-learning: A Gandhian perspective. Campus Compact Reader, 2(1), 1,12-19.

Appendix A

Field Experiences in Family and Child Services (HEFM 315-02)
Spring 2004 - After-School Tutorial Program

# of Tutees

Grade Level



# of Teacher Tutors

# of MSU Tutors

Daily Schedule

For Use

School Site Wed, 3-5 pm


Community Site Thursday 4-6 pm


Appendix B

Field Experiences in Family and Child Services (HEFM 315-02)
Spring 2004 - Student Tutoring Attendance


Weekly Schedule

# of Tutors attended

Name of School Site



Tuesday 2:45-4:45

2/17/04 (Holiday)


(3 students assigned)










3/16/04 (Spring Break)














Appendix C

Student and Teacher Assessments

Name of School Site


Recommendations for Improvement

Teacher Tutor

  • MSU tutors are flexible, have patience, and are understanding
  • There are an abundance of resources
  • There are more tutors and smaller groups
  • The program is rewarding because the children are making progress
  • Children look forward to coming and getting help
  • Provides enrichment and increases skill level and self-esteem of tutees
  • Daily schedule is organized
  • Tutees need new graphic organizers and new workbooks
  • Older tutees should stick to one book rather than read different books on different days of the week
  • Tutees need to be prepared and bring their homework assignments
  • Emphasize everyday math in the tutoring sections
  • Have more conference time between teacher tutors and tutees

MSU Students

  • Have small groups for the older tutees
  • Teacher tutors are flexible, patient, and understanding.
  • They provide a comfortable environment and are receptive to feedback.
  • MSU students support teachers
  • They have an abundance of resources
  • Tutoring schedule fits in MSU students’ schedule

  • Some students need more one-on-one assistance
  • Older tutees had a lack of respect for tutors and at times there were behavior problems
  • Teachers and tutors need advanced notice of readings and assignments so they can prepare activities ahead of time

Appendix D


Montclair State University

Department of Human Ecology, Finley Hall room 112

11:30 – 1:00 pm, Wednesday, April 28, 2004


I.                     Introductions – (student name) and (student name)

                A.  Montclair Public Schools - Board of Education Staff

                     (name), Director, Curriculum and Instruction

                     (name), Supervisor of Curriculum

                     (name),Teacher, XYZ School

                     (name), Teacher, XYZ School

                B.  Montclair State University Service-Learning Program Staff and Faculty

                     (name), Associate Director, Center for Community-Based Learning

                     (name), MSU’s Service-Learning Coordinator

                     (name), Program Assistant, MSU’s Service-Learning Program

                     (name), Graduate Assistant, MSU’s Service-Learning Program

                     (name), Graduate Assistant, MSU’s Service-Learning Program

                     (name), faculty, XYZ Department

                     Mary E. Henry, faculty, Department of Human Ecology

                 C. Montclair State Students

                     Field Experiences in Family and Child Services class

                     XYZ class

II.             Brief Overview of:

                A      The After-School Tutorial Program’s goals, benefits, funding sources, and the amount of funding (community partner’s name)

                B.    Montclair State University’s Service-Learning Program goals for 2004-2005

                          1        A description of and changes/updates that are being considered for the Literacy Champions manuals in 2004-2005

                          2        (names of MSU service-learning staff members)

III.           Review reports prepared by the students in the Field Experiences in Family and Child Services class and the XYZ class

IV.          Questions from students and reflections on this past semester from all parties

V.           Suggestions for the future