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Tuesday / April 25

The Importance of Debriefing in Learning and What That Might Look Like in the Classroom

This post is an excerpt from Teaching Numeracy.

The Importance of Debriefing in Learning:

The act of debriefing means to carefully examine and analyze upon completion, providing succinctness and summary of a situation.

Debriefing is a daily exercise in most professions: business, politics, law enforcement, psychology, healthcare, law, etc. It is often seen as integral to the profession as members reflect on their learning experiences, track their progress, and name their understandings. In truth, debriefing is accepted as an everyday necessity in order for the professional to advance in his/her practice.

Unfortunately, we as teachers, overwhelmed with exhaustive standards, often feel too rushed to tap into the power of debriefing with students. However, the truth is that when students get the opportunity to dwell on and synthesize the work from a lesson, they discover what they have learned and how they learned it, and then consider what they should do next to stretch and grow that learning. When we afford time for a Debrief, our students get the chance to personalize the lesson and determine where their understanding is and where it isn’t.

What Debriefing Might Look Like in the Classroom:

Exit Tickets

Exit tickets are a simple but very effective technique for promoting application, analysis, and synthesis of the learning. Students complete their exit tickets before leaving the class. You then use the collected exit tickets as a quick formative assessment to gauge the needs of the class. They thus serve as closure for a day’s class and as information that can be used for planning (Allen, 2004, p. 201). They can also be used by students at the beginning of the next class to generate common class questions or to form study groups (p. 24). What do exit tickets look like in math? They can be summaries, problems to solve, questions that remain, visual representations, journals, analogies, examples and counterexamples, reflections on the prog- ress of the lesson, sketches, and so on. Basically, an exit ticket can be any way you want the students to demonstrate what they learned from class that day.

Essential Question Revisited

Determine the Purpose of the lesson. From that statement, create an essential question or two that will help students reach an understanding of the lesson’s Purpose. Present it to the students at the Bridge. Ask them to think, write, and discuss their responses. Then put up the same essential question at the Debrief and have the students use their new knowledge to add to or otherwise revise their original responses. Allow time for silence. Make the questions conceptually grounded, with a real-life flavor to them, rather than simply address the behavioral objective of the lesson. You will get more buy-in this way because the students will find relevance in the learning.

Evaluation of Today’s Learning Objective

Have the students fill out sheets that summarize their understanding and signal their efforts to reach the goals for the day’s lesson (see the sample forms that follow).



Human Continuum

Place cards at the front of your classroom labeled along a continuum as follows (Hollas, 2005, p. 78):

  • I could teach what we learned today!
  • If I took a test on what we learned today, I would do pretty well!
  • I still don’t get what we learned today and would like to revisit it with help!

On the floor in front of the cards, make a line with masking tape. Ask students to stand on the masking tape, positioning themselves so that they are near the card that best describes their understanding of the content. Ask each student to turn to a neighbor and discuss what he or she knows about the topic and/or  why he or she chose to stand at that location.

GIST:  “Generating Interactions Between Schemata and Text”

GIST has been proven to effectively improve students’ reading com- prehension and summary writing (Cunningham, 1982, p. 42–47; Forget,

2004, pp. 156–162). At the Debrief component of the lesson, have students generate a summary of 20 or fewer words. Then ask students to share their GIST statements with a partner. Now challenge the students to come to a consensus for a class GIST summary. By restricting the length of students’ GIST summaries, the teacher compels the students to use the three major strategies necessary for comprehension and retention of key ideas in any text: They must delete trivial information, select key ideas, and generalize in their own words.

Before and After the Learning

Return to your “anticipation guide” or “preconcept and postconcept check” to review for accuracies and inaccuracies.

Making Connections

What connections link this learning to the big ideas in mathematics (Hyde, 2006, p. 125)? Encourage the students to make math-to-self, math- to-math, and math-to-world connections.

Whip Around

Have your students make a large circle. You state the Focus, and each student quickly states a connection to that Focus. The connection can be a related concept, an important idea, an example, a strategy for problem solving, a personal connection, a math-to-math connection, or a math-to- real-world connection.

Three Facts and a Fib

This activity is a summative assessment. Ask students to write on an index card four statements about any content the class has just studied (Forsten et al., 2002b, p. 88). Three of the statements (examples, equations, etc.) should be true, and one should be false. Tell students to move about the room, sharing their list of statements with each other. Explain that each student should ask his fellow students to try to pick the false statement. An alternative to this activity is to collect the cards and use them as an Ignition the next day.

Three facts

Writing Summaries

Summarizing one’s understanding or thinking in writing facilitates deep processing. In short, writing is hard, and the act of writing requires not only deep thinking but also processing your knowledge. Writing sum- maries is even harder. A written summary is synthesis in action.

3-2-1 Journal Entry

The 3-2-1 strategy requires students to summarize key ideas from the lesson and encourages them to think independently. First, students write about 3 things they discovered. Next, they write about 2 things they found interesting. Last, they write 1 question they still have. This strategy can be used as a journal entry during the Debrief or as an exit ticket. The 3-2-1 journal has endless options. You can be flexible with what you want the students to write about: 3 examples of the learning, 2 nonexamples, and 1 way you can tell the difference, and so on.

Math Journals

Journaling affords time for students to reflect, reconsider, revise, and reapply the learning. A math journal is the ideal place for students to pro- cess their mathematical thinking. The math journal can also hold reflec- tions, connections, and syntheses, all of which require skills necessary for success on your state’s open-ended math questions. Reflective writing allows students to experience the quietness of their own minds at work, which is a gift.

Teaching an Adult at Home!

After you introduce a new math concept, the students’ homework could include “teaching” an adult at home what was learned in class that day. During the Debrief, we practice in class by role playing what they will do at home that evening. Only assign a few problems, with the bottom half of the math page a space for the adult’s signature as well as any comments.

This activity allows students to synthesize the learning and provides a worthwhile formative assessment. If the student doesn’t truly understand the concept, there is no way he or she will be able to explain it clearly to someone else.

“Leftovers . . . Again!

Have “leftover” containers available for each small group. Their assignment is to place “leftovers” in the container for someone to “mull over” tomorrow. The leftovers should provide the “main dish” from the learning and some of the “side dishes” that supported it that day. The “dessert” should be their favorite part of the lesson. They can do this with pictures, manipulatives, explanations, and so on. Make sure groups can defend their choice of leftovers. Now use the containers the next day as the Bridge to the Learning.

Representation of the Lesson

Students  represent  the  learning  in  some  visual  way:  2-D  models, tables, graphs, sketches, graphic organizers, cartoons, Venn diagrams, examples/nonexamples, and so on. This visualization will promote critical thinking. Challenge the students to explain their visual representations.

Stump the Teacher

Students, working in partnerships or small groups, prepare questions or problems to try to “stump their teacher” (Forget, 2004, pp. 221–225). This activity is a high-level way to review just before a test because stu- dents need to have a deep understanding of the content to craft difficult and stump-worthy questions.


Journaling is a great way to Debrief the lesson. The journal prompts below are perfect for debriefing in the math class. Thanks to Donna Boucher, from Math Coach’s Corner for collaborating with me on this list.

The following prompts are intended to cultivate deeper mathematical conversations and reflections.

Put it in Writing 2_Page_1

Put it in Writing 2_Page_2

Download “Put it in Writing”

Written by

Margie Pearse has over 30 years of teaching experience with certifications in mathematics, elementary education, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Pennsylvania Quality Assurance Systems (Certified Instructor – PQAS 2014). She is presently at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School as their K-12 Math Coach and in higher education, training pre-service teachers how to create deeper, more numeracy based lessons.

Margie’s educational philosophy can be summed up as such, “Why NOT reinvent the wheel! Yesterday’s lessons will not suffice for students to succeed in tomorrow’s world. We need to meet students, not just where they are, but where they need to be. There is great potential in every child. It is our job to empower students to discover that potential and possess the tenacity and self-efficacy to reach it.”

Published Books: Teaching Numeracy: 9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking, released by Corwin in 2011; Learning That Never Ends, released by Rowman & Littlefield in 2013; and Passing the Mathematics Test for Elementary Teachers, by Rowman & Littlefield, February 2015.

Latest comments

  • mm

    Hello! This post was recommended for The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts at the end of the year and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

  • This is absolutely fantastic!! Margie Pearse is such an amazing author and an outstanding teacher! So very thankful and blessed to have had the privilege of being taught by Mrs. Pearse!! Everyone should read her enlightening and amazing books…teachers and parents!!

  • Love this!!! Such a great teacher!! 🙂

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