Seminar Self-Assessment – the After-Action Review

Next week I will re-introduce a tool for seminar self-assessment.  It’s called the After-Action Review (AAR), but others may know it as the Post-Action Review, the Post-Mortem, or a Retrospective Analysis.

Regardless, it is a knowledge management process focused on finding ways to improve group learning. It is about asking the questions that leads to a student discussion of what can be done to improve their work.

To my mind it’s an indispensable tool for seminar management as you cede more authority to your students.

There are three steps to a basic AAR: get the group to recall what was supposed to happen, explores what did happen (from multiple points of view) and lastly develops a workable response, a plan to improve.

An AAR is about asking questions.  You are not telling them what went wrong and what might be done.  It’s a process of self-discovery.

Although AARs are student-centered processes, you can facilitate.  I like to plan my AARs a bit in advance. I know what I want them to discover and will design questions that I hope aren’t too leading but will get them pointed in the right direction.

I’m sometimes obtuse when I start.  For seminar discussion I might toss in something intriguing, such as: “Tell me about puppy training.  How do we get our pups to listen?”


If I start with something like, “Tell me about discussions?” odds are I’ll get answers from the “I like Puppies” genre – obvious and impossible to dislike.  They’ll say, “Share ideas. Learn from each other.”

The discussion will go nowhere.  These are safe surface level answer, not insights.  I find insights stem from conversation, so I try to get them going toward that end.

Hence, the obtuse question. After a few strange looks, someone usually says, “we reward them.”

“Good.”  I then ask, “Why would I bring this up?”

I am hoping to hear a student or two admit that they spend too much time seeking to find the “right” answer for the eventual treat.  They’re looking to have a Scooby snack tossed their way.

Ask, “Even now, what are you doing?”

Answer, “Answering you.”

Ask, “Okay group – talk with each other.  What’s fear?”

Perhaps add a prod, such as, “I need two people at least to add to that – give me some examples, and respond to those examples…”

Wait them out.  You may have to wait an uncomfortable minute (or two) but someone will chime in.  If you talk first, you signal that when it gets uncomfortable, you’ll take the pressure off them.  Don’t.

Yes, I see the irony in prodding them into a discussion when the very reason for the AAR is a lack of discussion. 

When someone does say something (anything), acknowledge it.  If it’s spot on, build on it.  If it’s in the vicinity, say something affirming (“that’s good – can you elaborate?”).  Like any seminar discussion, as the facilitator you should always listen carefully to what students are saying. When you hear something that strikes you a good comment, key point, or a possible recommendation, be ready to summarize the words in a way that captures the sentiment… “what I heard you say is…”

Eventually you’ll have some ideas on the table (probably the usual stuff):  fear of being wrong (fixed mindset); fear of getting a low grade; fear of looking stupid.  You might hear from an introvert that it’s not fear, but that the conversation moves too fast for them to get out what they want to say…

I sometimes (admittedly) ask leading questions.  In this example I might use: “What about this idea of intellectual courage that we talked about in Phase I – why did we add that as a learning objective?”

When think you’ve had a sufficient discussion about fear and the meaning of intellectual courage, ask the clincher question:

“If all that’s true, what’s to be done?  Not in life.  Not at QU.  Here, in this seminar.”

Get them to focus on what they can control, and not dwell on what they can’t.

Capture the ideas and perhaps add them to your social contract.

What it takes

Running an effective AAR takes a classroom culture of introspection, honesty, and a genuine desire to learn. These require trust and mutual respect.  See my essay on Trust.

Specific AAR Ground Rules

It’s not about affixing blame; it’s about process improvement

Never offer up “mistakes” for discussion – “let’s discuss what happened when the Power Point slide didn’t work.”  Don’t frame the issue for them…let them draw the conclusions from their discussion.  It’s about self-discovery.

Everyone should participate. Perhaps add a hybrid component…a forum in blackboard for reticent students to post a thought or two.


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