Most people have heard someone say “In Simulation, debriefing is where all of the learning occurs.” I frequently hear this when running faculty development workshops and programs, which isn’t as shocking as hearing this espoused at national and international meetings in front of large audiences! What a ridiculous statement without a shred of evidence or a realistic common sense approach to think it would be so. Sadly, I fear it represents an unfortunate instructor-centered perspective and/or a serious lack of appreciation for potential learning opportunities provided by simulation based education.
Many people academically toil over the technical definitions of the word feedback and try to contrast in from a description of debriefing as if they are juxtaposed. They often present it in a way as if one is good and the other is bad. There is a misguided notion that feedback is telling someone, or lecturing to someone to get a point across. I believe that is a narrow interpretation of the word. I think that there are tremendous opportunities for learning from many facets of simulation that may be considered feedback.
Well-designed simulation activities hopefully provide targeted learning opportunities of which part of it is experiential, sometimes immersive, in some way. I like to think of debriefing as one form of feedback that a learner may encounter during simulation based learning, commonly occurring after engaging in some sort of immersive learning activity or scenario. Debriefing can be special if done properly and will actually allow the learner to “discover” new knowledge, perhaps reinforce existing knowledge, or maybe even have corrections made to inaccurate knowledge. No matter how you look at it at the end of the day it is a form of feedback, that can likely lead, or contribute to learning. But to think that during the debriefing is the only opportunity for learning is incredibly short-sighted.
There are many other forms of feedback and learning opportunities that learners may experience in the course of well-designed simulation based learning. The experience of the simulation itself is ripe with opportunities for feedback. If a learner puts supplemental oxygen on a simulated patient that is demonstrating hypoxia on the monitor via the pulse oximetry measurements and the saturations improve, that is a form of feedback. Conversely, if the learner(s) forgets to provide the supplemental oxygen and the saturations or other signs of respiratory distress continue to worsen then that can be considered feedback as well. The latter two example examples are what I refer to as intrinsic feedback as they are embedded in the scenario design to provide clues to the learners, as well as to approximate what may happen to a real patient in a similar circumstance.
With regard to intrinsic feedback, it is only beneficial if it is recognized and properly interpreted by the learner(s) either while actively involved in the simulated clinical encounter, and if not, perhaps in the debriefing. The latter should be employed if the intrinsically designed feedback is important to accomplishing the learning objectives germane to the simulation.
There are still other forms of feedback that likely contribute to the learning that are not part of the debriefing. In the setting of a simulated learning encounter involving several learners, the delineation of duties, the acceptance or rejection of treatment suggestions are all potentially ripe for learning. If a learner suggests a therapy that is embraced by the team, or perhaps stimulates a group discussion during the course of the scenario the resultant conversation and ultimate decision can significantly add to the learning of the involved participants.
Continuing that same idea, perhaps the decision to provide, withhold, or check the dosage of a particularly therapy invokes a learner to check a reference, or otherwise look up a reference that provides valuable information that solidifies a piece of information in the mind of the leaner. The learner may announce such findings to the team while the scenario is still underway thereby sharing the knowledge with the rest of the treatment team. Waaah Laaaah…… more learning that may occur outside of the debriefing!
Finally, I believe there is an additional source of learning that occurs outside of the debriefing. Imagine when a learner experiences something or becomes aware of something during a scenario which causes them to realize they have a knowledge gap in that particular area. Maybe they forgot a critical drug indication, dosage or adverse interaction. Perhaps there was something that just stimulated their natural curiosity. It is possible that those potential learning items are not covered in the debriefing as they may not be core to the learning objectives. This may indeed stimulate the learner to engage in self-study to enhance their learning further to close that perceived area of a knowledge gap. What???? Why yes, more learning outside of the debriefing!
In fact, we hope that this type of stimulation occurs on the regular basis as a part of active learning that may have been prompted by the experiential aspects provided by simulation. Such individual stimulation of learning is identified in the sentinel publication of Dr. Barry Issenberg et al in Vol 27 of Medical Teacher in 2005 describing key features of effective simulation.
So hopefully I have convinced you, or reinforced your belief that the potential for learning from simulation based education spans far beyond the debriefing. Please recognize that this statement made by others likely reflects a serious misunderstanding and underappreciation for learning that can and should be considered with the use of simulation. The implication of such short-sightedness can have huge impacts on the efficiency and effectiveness of simulation that begin with curriculum and design.
So the next time you are incorporating simulation into your education endeavor, sit back and think of all of the potential during which learning may occur. Of course the debriefing in one such activity during which we hope learning to occur. Thinking beyond the debriefing and designing for the bigger picture of potential learning that can be experienced by the participants is likely going to help you achieve positive outcomes from your overall efforts.