What? So what? Now what?

I spent last week as a mentor and facilitator for Project Kaleidoscope’s STEM Leadership Institute.  Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) is “AAC&U’s STEM higher education reform center dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are competitively trained and liberally educated.” The approach of the STEM Leadership Institute (SLI) is to us “case studies, role-playing, and collaborative problem-solving” to guide the participants in understanding their own leadership capabilities and in the development of personal and professional leadership plans.

A foundational basis for the institute is to support participant learning that results from progress through a four stage cycle: (1) doing/having an experience, (2) reviewing and reflecting on that experience, (3) analyzing and generalizing from the experience, and (4) using what has been learned to test hypotheses in future situations, resulting in new experiences (Kolb 1984). To facilitate that approach, the participants are guided through a reflection process after each exercise and that process asks the questions what? so what? and now what? This is an approach that I have tried to incorporate in my first-year seminar to give students a structure for reflecting on the observations they are making about the designs that surround them in their daily lives.

When I ask students to sketch a design that interests them, I also ask them to reflect in their journals on the design using a process very similar to that used at the SLI:

  • What? What was it about the design that appealed to you? Why did you select it? What experiences have you had with that design (or similar designs) in the past? What experiences have you observed others having with the design?
  • So what? What have you learned from looking at the design? How does it compare to other designs we’ve talked about in class? What design principles does it illustrate?
  • Now what? Given what you’ve learned by studying this design, what questions do you now have? How might you improve this design?  How might you apply what you’ve learned to something different?

Reflection is a powerful tool for learning and regardless of the age or level of experience of the individual (whether the learner is a participant at something like PKAL’s SLI or a first-year student in college), it helps to provide a structure for reflection that helps support that learning. The what? so what? now what? model is a simple approach that can have significant benefits.

(This post has also been published at sketchingforunderstanding.typepad.com)


Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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