Use the ‘What? So What? Now What?’ model: a great example of reflective questioning

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In this guide to the ‘What? So What? Now What?’ reflection model you’ll find the resources you need to successfully enhance your reflective questioning abilities.

Here’s what you’ll find in this blog post:

Take me straight to the free downloads!

What is ‘What? So What? Now What?’

This is a reflective model designed to help people evaluate a recent experience or experiential learning activity. When used with groups and teams it’s a great way to highlight ways through which they can improve, refine, and otherwise strengthen their team-working skills.

Note: to make this blog post a little easier to read we’ll refer to ‘What? So What? Now What?’ as WSWNW from now on 👍

As the name suggests, there are three stages to this reflection model:

  • What? An objective review of what took place
  • So what? A more subjective exploration of the implications
  • Now what? A look at how the lessons learned can be carried forward

Most commonly attributed to Rolfe et al. in 2001, but you may also see Terri Burton, Dorothy Strachan, or Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandles credited with its development.

How to use ‘What? So What? Now What?’

As a reflection model, WSWNW is best employed immediately after a task is finished. Used this way it gives participants the chance to reflect on a recent experience while the memory is fresh and, ideally, to put new ideas to immediate effect by repeating the activity.

Instructions for facilitating ‘What? So What? Now What?’

As WSWNW is split into three distinct phases, we’ve included instructions for each:

What?

  1. After an activity to be reviewed is finished, gather everyone back together in their teams. The kind of experiential activities found in an MTa Kit lend themselves well to using WSWNW, as the review is a great way to help people make the most of the experience.
  2. Give each participant the opportunity to reflect individually for a couple of minutes, and ask them to write down their thoughts. Post-its work well here as they’ll be sharing their thoughts with others in their team.
  3. Encourage them to focus on the objective experience, and use facilitation questions to guide their thoughts. See the ‘What?’ section of the ‘Good reflection questions’ section below for suggested questions.
  4. Ask individuals to regroup into their teams and share their thoughts with each other.
  5. Invite each team to present their thoughts to the group as a whole, with emphasis on objective reports of what happened rather than subjective interpretations.
  6. While groups are presenting, write key information down on a whiteboard or similarly visible surface.

So What?

  1. Again, give each participant the opportunity to reflect individually, asking them to write down their thoughts about the subjective aspects of the task.
  2. Use the facilitation questions from the ‘So What?’ section to guide their thoughts.
  3. Repeat steps 4-6 above, emphasising subjective information instead of objective. 
  4. Discuss emergent ideas and conclusions as a group.

Now What?

  1. Give participants a minute to jot down their ideas about how to move forward based on the insights from ‘What?’ and ‘So What?’
  2. Give teams 5 minutes to share and build their ideas.
  3. Gather the whole group and encourage group discussion using the facilitation questions in the ‘Now What?’ section.
  4. To maximise the efficacy of WSWNW in an experiential learning context, we recommend repeating the initial task as a way for participants to put their ideas to the test. 

Key Development Opportunities

  • Taking time to observe, reflect and learn before repeating a similar task, rather than rushing in blindly. This also fosters a reflective mindset: one that places less emphasis on blame than a reactive mindset.
  • Taking time also encourages participants to build a better understanding of the task, a useful skill to carry forward into many situations in and out of work.
  • If facilitated correctly (i.e. with the focus shifting between each step, and with reflection questions used to guide participants’ thoughts), this model encourages individuals and teams to take ownership of issues and look to resolve them internally rather than immediately looking to someone else (usually a superior) to fix it for them.
  • That it’s OK to make mistakes! By engaging in structured reflection participants learn that mistakes or setbacks can be fertile ground for the ideas that eventually lead to improvement or even success.

Materials Needed

Per PersonFor the Facilitator
Some paper, preferably Post-itsFlipchart, whiteboard or similar
A penA pen
Facilitation questions (see below)

Good reflection questions

The reflection questions below are adapted from resources like those available from the University of Cumbria and Hilbert College, and while quite general, map well onto the three stages of WSWNW. 

One important element of good reflection questions is choosing those which align well with the task at hand, and which prompt lines of thought that will lead to meaningful change. Each MTa activity comes with tailored reflection questions designed to achieve exactly that.

In general, you can tell good review questions from bad ones with a quick sense check. Bad review questions are closed, loaded, provoke a defensive response, shut down thinking, and get people to critique the activity rather than the process.

Example of reflection questions for the ‘What?’ stage

What happened?

What was the objective or goal?

What were your initial expectations?

What were your observations?

What was your role and what were your responsibilities?

What did you do?

How did others respond?

Were there consequences? If so, what were they?

Example of reflection questions for the ‘So What?’ stage

What were you thinking about?

What were your actions based on?

What knowledge or expertise did you bring to the situation?

What could you have done differently? Better? 

What is your understanding of the activity now?

What did you learn? 

Did anything surprise you or deviate from your expectations?

What lens are you looking at the activity from?

Did you enjoy it? What did or didn’t you like particularly?

What did you learn about the other participants?

Example of reflection questions for the ‘Now What?’ stage

 What do you need to do in order to improve things next time?

What might the root causes of any identified issues be?

What learning occurred for you in this experience?

How can you apply this learning in future iterations of this activity?

How can you apply this learning in other contexts?

Is any follow-up needed to address any challenges or difficulties?

If you could do the project again, what would you do differently?

Downloads to help you facilitate with the ‘What? So What? Now What?’ model

We’ve put together the resources below to help you to use the WSWNW model as effectively as possible. 

Free Lego Challenge Worksheet download

Free Review Questions document
a list of example review questions to aid reflection

Using ‘What? So What? Now What?’ in experiential learning

As outlined in our exploration of experiential learning, one of the key stages is reflective observation. Here, reflecting from multiple perspectives on an activity and its outcomes is a way to crystalise their understanding and the bedrock upon which subsequent steps are built.

By reflecting, observations and reflections can be integrated into new theories. Structured review techniques – like WSWNW – are a way to ensure the observations and reflections are arrived at, examined critically, and integrated effectively.

After review, repeating an activity (the active experimentation stage) is an opportunity to put these newfound ideas to the test. It’s from this repeat experience that lessons are learned, and meaningful behavioural change is achieved.

By incorporating WSWNW into your activities, you give your participants a chance to reflect and engage in the experiential learning process. Rather than perform an activity in isolation and hope that lasting change is achieved (hint: it rarely, if ever, is), you provide a structured and specialised framework for this change to come to fruition.

Alternatives to ‘What? So What? Now What?’

There are plenty of different reflection models and styles available, and each of our kits and the activities they contain come with tailored review sheets. These sheets are designed to facilitate the conversation and reflection required to allow lasting behavioural change.

Here are two examples of activities and the review prompts they contain.

Hoist – from MTa Insights

In this multiphase leadership activity, available in MTa Insights, participants must work together in a team, lead others and then experience being led.

This activity is designed to provide significant discussion and learning in:

  • Instructing
  • Gaining commitment 
  • Followership 
  • Leadership 
  • Prioritising 
  • Customer focus 
  • Thinking ahead
military experiential learning activity

Over the Bridge – from MTa Team Kit

This activity, part of the MTa Team Kit, introduces fundamental concepts and skills of teamwork. While the central task – building a bridge – sounds simple, the activity is structured in such a way that participants are prompted to link their learning with their life as a while, and to plan how to implement what has been learned.

This activity is designed to 

  • Introduce a broad range of team skills 
  • Provide an opportunity to consolidate learning about effective team working 
  • Raise some of the fundamental issues behind effective leadership 
  • Emphasise the need for teams to be aware of and meet customers’ needs
participants engaging in an experiential learning activity

‘What? So What? Now What?’ FAQs

Many facilitators have questions about how this reflection model works and how best to put it to use. We’ve rounded up some of these questions below – feel free to get in touch if you have more via the live chat icon in the bottom right! 

Who came up with the WSWNW model?

The model was first used by Rolfe et al (2001), and you can see the full reference at the bottom of this article. The model is sometimes attributed to other authors, as mentioned previously, but Rolfe et al should be considered the originators.

When should I use WSWNW?

This reflection model is useful when facilitating reflection of an activity, as outlined above, but it can also be put to good use when reflecting on an experience in the past. The model can be used anytime you need to achieve reflection within a structured framework.

What other reflection models are there?

There are many other models of reflection available, including (but not limited to):

  • The ERA Cycle (Jasper, 2013)
  • Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle (1988)
  • Driscoll’s What Model (various citations)
  • Johns’ model for structured reflection (2006)

Further reading

Driscoll, J. (2007). Practicing Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

Gibbs, G. (1998). Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford: Further Education Unit, Oxford Polytechnic.

Jasper, M. (2013). Beginning Reflective Practice. Andover: Cengage Learning.

Johns C (1995) Framing learning through reflection within Carper’s fundamental ways of knowing in nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 22(2), 226-234.

Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., Jasper, M. (2001). Critical reflection in nursing and the helping professions: a user’s guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.