human factors


This page will describe ways in which debriefing or "after action reviews" can improve performance.
Debriefing can occur after "real" experience (e.g. treating a genuine patient, leading a group on a hill) or after a simulation. In both cases the emphasis is on learning through reflection.

This page does not cover critical incident stress debriefing, which aims to provide support to personnel after a psychologically traumatic event.

Debriefs generally occur with group or team activity (indeed they are one of the things that enhance team work) but there is overlap with feedback

Purposes of debriefing

Debriefing is developmental: the goals are learning and improved performance
  1. Assess performance* (compare with standard if there is one)
  2. Identify strengths and weaknesses
  3. Determine how to improve next time / sustain good performance

(for those who use the learning cycle, debriefing will sit in the "reflective observation", "abstract conceptualisation" and "active experimentation" phases, and will follow "concrete experience")

* It is important to emphasis the focus is the performance not the performer

Slide from this presentation:

Debriefs / AARS will cover the following:
  1. What was the plan / what was meant to happen? (process and outcomes)
  2. What actually happened? (process and outcomes)
  3. If 1 and 2 were different why was this the case?
  4. What should we do to sustain good performance or to improve performance?

When debriefs are covering activities in hazardous environment, it is wise to start by asking if there were any safety issues.

One of the aims of debriefing is to generate increased self awareness (so participants are able to reflect and improve alone as well as in the group). Because of this a non-heirarchical approach is needed; the debriefing is best facilitated rather than led. In an established team it may be helpful to rotate the person who facilitates the debriefing.

1. The plan

The basis for this section should be the briefing - if the SMEAC format was used the M part describes the intended outcome, and the EAC the way in which it was planned to achieve it. The objective(s) (the M part of SMEAC) must be included in this phase - whether or not they were achieved will be covered in the next phase.

2. What happened

Getting participants to run through their recollection of events chronologically may be helpful (creating a timeline).
No single participant will have recalled everything perfectly; everyone should have an opportunity to talk through their version of events.
When there is a model/structure for how things are meant to be done (e.g. SAFETAC in wilderness medicine setting) it is useful to analyse and evaluate against that.
Human factors should be considered in this phase - again probably assisted by using a structure (e.g. leadership, safety, assessment, decision-making, communication, teamwork & mutual support)

3. The reasons

When there is a model/structure for how things are meant to be done (e.g. SAFETAC in wilderness medicine setting) it is useful to analyse and evaluate against that. Failure to use the model may be a cause of suboptimal outcomes.
Human factors should be considered in this phase - as above shortcomings may underlie suboptimal outcomes.

4. The learning

Comments should be constructive but need not be positive; if something was done badly or not at all that needs to be highlighted.
The learning points should be recorded and referred back to in the future.
Examples of effective behaviouors must be highlighted if learning from those is to take place.


Guidance on after action reviews
NASA guidance on debriefing
Shorter guidance on AARs
Debriefing Red Arrows style
US army guidance on AARs
A police approach to debriefing
Approaches to debriefing suited to use in outdoor setting
Debriefing is simulator education
Debriefing medical teams