Debriefing and Reflection

by MarCus Vrecer


In the context of youth work and education, the terms “debriefing,” “reflection,” “assessment,” and “evaluation” are often used to describe processes that help individuals and groups learn from experiences, and draw consequences, for example, to improve future performance and behaviour. While these terms are related, they have distinct meanings and purposes.


Assessment is the process of collecting information and evidence to gauge the knowledge, skills, abilities, and progress of individuals and teams. Assessments can be formative (ongoing and intended to guide learning) or summative (concluding an instructional period and used for evaluation purposes). In youth work and education, assessments are often used to measure learning outcomes and ensure that learners are meeting the established standards or goals. Assessments can be both quantitative (e.g., tests, quizzes) and qualitative (e.g., projects, portfolios, interviews). The assessment is done against set criteria and standards. For learning, the criteria are often based on competence models. The assessment can be done individually (self-assessment) or externally. 

Often a 360 degree approach is applied, meaning that the assessment is carried out  by oneself, but also by all external parties and people that somehow have a stake or insight in the process. For learners, this could be for example: peers, educators, relatives and employers. Comparing the results of self-assessment and external assessment (and feedback) by different stakeholders can provide important insights on blind spots, biases, and areas for development.


Evaluation is a systematic process that involves making judgments about the quality, effectiveness, and impact of a programme, activity, or intervention. It focuses on determining whether the desired outcomes and goals were achieved, and often involves using specific criteria or standards. Evaluation can be done at various stages, such as during the planning phase, throughout implementation, and after the completion of a project. 

To compare evaluation results and to measure impact or change, it is important to use the same tools and criteria before a project or activity (ex-ante), and afterwards (ex-post). This helps organisations and educators to make informed decisions about how to improve and refine their programs based on evidence and feedback. Another model often used in evaluation, especially when it comes to evaluation of quality, is to consider the following three dimensions, summarised as the “3P”: people, product and process.



Debriefing is a structured discussion or conversation that takes place immediately after an activity, event, or experience. The aim is  to help learners process their emotions, thoughts, and observations, usually in the immediate aftermath of an activity or experience. Debriefing processes are often guided by a facilitator and involve sharing individual experiences, reactions, and insights related to the activity or experience. The primary goal of debriefing is to allow learners to decompress, make sense of what happened, identify and assimilate learning points, ideally even in a generalised form and with consequences for future behaviour, and close the chapter of the specific experience.

A popular model for the debriefing process involves the Experiential Learning Theory by David A. Kolb. Following this theory, learning takes place in a cycle (or actually an upwards helix), consisting of the four stages of;  concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. In simplified terms, and applying it to debriefing, this can be described as examining systematically the following four aspects, also referred to as the “4 Fs”:

  • Facts – what happened?
  • Feelings – how did this make me/us feel? What did I/we appreciate, and what was not good? 
  • Findings – what is the “why” and the concepts/logic behind all this? How can I/we generalise the experience, what is the system behind? 
  • Future – what are possible consequences for the future? What will I, or we, change or do differently in the future? Do I, or we, change our way of thinking and feeling, and our assumptions and attitudes about the world?


Ideally, the learning points and effect of the debriefing would not only be about new knowledge as well as  decisions about modified behaviour in specific future situations, but go deeper and be about a change or improvement of underlying attitudes, skills and ways of thinking or feeling. New behaviour would thus be the result of a more fundamental and systemic change.

A final consideration on debriefing is that sometimes, when an experience or activity has been overwhelming and stirs up strong emotions in the learners, it is important to first give space to steam out, decompress, and provide space for handling, coping and containment of these feelings and dynamics, before the debriefing can proceed to the identification and integration of insights and learning points.


Reflection is a broader and ongoing process to encourage and support individuals to think deeply and critically about their experiences, approaches, actions, and outcomes in life, and does not need to be limited to a specific experience. The goal of reflection is to get insights and connect them to broader learning goals or personal growth. Reflection’s main strength is that it encourages deeper understanding and self-awareness. 

Reflection can be done individually or with peers, can be facilitated externally or self-facilitated, and can be supported by various tools to allow the learners to engage more deeply with their experiences and learning. Examples of such tools are: journals and reflective writing, individual discussions with peers or bots, structured discussions in groups, reflective prompts and empowering questions, mind mapping, gallery walks, one-minute papers, use of digital reflection platforms, visual reflections, role reversal and empathy activities, reflection cards, story cubes, digital portfolios, sensory reflections, as well as body work and embodiment. In our link list for further reference you can find detailed descriptions of such tools and methods.

We would like to underline here the importance of non-verbal tools such as body work or non-verbal creative expression, in order to bypass the filters and standard narratives of our cognitive system and world view, and instead get a more raw and unfiltered resonance of our system to work with further. 

Another important aspect for youth workers and educators in working with young people and supporting them in their learning, development and reflection processes, is to encourage practices of mindfulness, empathy with self and others, acknowledgment, presencing and suspended judgement. This takes out the pressure of sense-making and performing and feelings of being overwhelmed, and provides a necessary “breathing space” to young people, especially when facing feelings of anxiety and overwhelmedness due to dealing with the ambiguities of coping with and living a modern world of ever increasing complexity.