Saturday 24 September 2016

After-Action Review : A quick and simple technique to assess the quality of decisions

One of the essential tasks of the evidence-based practitioner is to evaluate the outcomes of  evidence-based decisions.  So at the start of term, a number of new practices will have been introduced into schools which resulted from decisions made during the previous school-year, for let's say, changes to pupil induction,  or how resources have been allocated to students requiring support, and a new timetable structure.  However, given the day to day pressures within schools of having to constantly prioritise the urgent and important, at the expense of the non-urgent and important, this post will look at a simple and time-effective technique,  known as an After-Action Review (AAR),  which can be be used to help school leaders assess the quality of decision outcomes.

What is an AAR?

Initially developed by the U.S. Army, an AAR is a group process which is designed to provide a systematic procedures to review incidents and identify the lessons to be learned.  The AAR consists of four steps.
  1. What did we set out to do?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. What are we going to do next time?
An AAR can be used to help learn from a range of incidents for issues such as;  discussions over collaboration with a nearby school; reviewing the how well a staff-meeting went; or, reviewing a new staff recruitment or induction process.

What are the key features of an AAR?

The following table has been developed by adopting and amending materials developed by the National Institute for Health Research (see

AAR Action
AAR should be performed after each identifiable event within a project or process, for example, at the end of an assessment block within a common departmental scheme of work
Often AARs can be conducted informally and take around 15 -30 minutes.  On other occasions, it may be desirable to bring someone in to help facilitate the process, say another Head of Department
It should involve, if at all possible, everyone who was involved in the project, teachers, classroom assistants and other support staff
What the AAR aims to do
Find out what worked, find out what didn’t work and identify suggestions as to what could be done differently next time
What it is not
AAR is not about solving things, or assigning blame. 
Ground rules
AAR should take place in a ‘safe-environment’ where individual participants are confident they can make a full contribution to the review
What is suitable for an AAR?
Basically anything which involves a project or event and has some basis on which it can be evaluated e.g a scheme of work; a new type of CPD event; or, process for recruiting staff
Outcomes of an AAR
These can be informal, for example, on-the spot learning for those involved in the AAR.  Or it can be more formal, with the AAR being documented and shared with others within the school.

What does a template for an AAR look-like?




AAR led by

AAR Questions

What did we set out to do?

What was the project leader’s intent?

What was the plan?

Was there anything missing?

What actually happened?

What took place?

Who was involved?

Where did I happen?

When did it happen?

How did it happen?

Why did it happen?

What worked?

What didn’t work?

What are we going to do next time?

What worked this time that might not work next time

What didn’t work this time that might work next time?

What are we going to do differently instead?

How are we going to share our learning with others?

Tips for conducting an AAR

With all these things, they can go well or less-well.  Below is a list of helpful tips from for conducting an AAR
  • Post the questions up on flip-chart sheets prior to the session, with answers then written on the sheet as the session progresses. The completed sheets can then be stuck up around the room to serve as a reminder of the progress. 
  • Participants are participants, not a passive audience. The facilitator should prepare leading questions and may have to ask it of several people. The questions can be asked on an individual or a team basis. The team mechanism is ideal, but if suggestions are slow coming, the facilitator could go around the room asking each individual to express one thing that worked and one thing that did not. 
  • If there are issues with either openness or time, it may be worthwhile to gather ideas first and then facilitate the discussion in the group environment.  
  • Ideally, an uninvolved note-taker should be asked to minute the session. This will enable better capture of the learning. 
  • The actionable recommendations should be as specific as possible. For example, an AAR following a workshop could have the following recommendation: ‘Make more time to understand the audience.’ A better SAR would be ‘Make contact with the organising body representative and ask about the range of participants before planning the workshop.’
Making the most of an AAR 

To ensure lessons learned from an AAR are disseminated within the organisation (school), Weick and Sutcliffe (2011), drawing upon the work of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learner Centre. suggest the following questions are asked in  what they call an AAR 'rollup'
  1. What was the most notable success at the incident that others may learn from?
  2. What were the most difficult challenges, faced and how were they overcomes
  3. What changes, additions or deletions are recommended to wild land fire training curriculums 
  4. What issues were not resolved to your satisfactions and need further further review.  Based on what was learned, what is your recommendations for resolution. (Weick and Sutcliffe, p145)
Some final words

AAR are an attempt to support the development of more mindful action, through the use of systematic processes to review projects and identify lessons (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2011).  When used well, they have the capacity to bring about  in a time effective manner a range of marginal gains across the school, which hopefully will benefit pupils, staff and other stakeholders.


WEICK, K. E. & SUTCLIFFE, K. M. 2011. Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty (second edition), John Wiley & Sons.


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