Racing through content to cover a list of required topics doesn’t guarantee that learners will absorb or retain the material, much less be able to use it in real-life, on-the-job situations. To make learning stick, particularly learning about complex ideas or thought processes, it’s important to provide learners with opportunities to reflect on and process what they’re learning. As an added bonus, these reflective opportunities can actually improve eLearning experiences for learners.

What? So what? Now what?

A popular reflection model based on a 2001 book by Gary Rolfe, Dawn Freshwater, and Melanie Jasper, Critical Reflection in Nursing and the Helping Professions: A User’s Guide, is often called the “What? So what? Now what?” model.

Each question or phase offers a path to guide learners through processing an experience. It’s applicable to all kinds of learning and life experiences—and it provides hooks that instructional designers can build into eLearning. Each of these questions can be answered from a learner’s perspective or from the viewpoint of the ID:

  • What? The first question asks the respondent to reflect on what happened. It might spark reflection on what content is or should be covered, the goal of the eLearning, or the target learner’s background, experience, and existing knowledge.
  • So what? This question starts to get into meaning and goals—why this content or this project matters to the learner or to other stakeholders.
  • Now what? Finally, learners (or IDs) are prompted to think ahead and consider next steps—how learning should be applied, what follow-up learning or retention programs should look like.


Providing open-ended questions, a means for learners to discuss eLearning content with one another, and other opportunities for them to reflect on learning content during and immediately after completing it can help in two ways: Learners may be motivated to engage more deeply with the content. They might also retain more of what they’ve learned if they’ve analyzed it and discussed it with others or through reflective writing.

But learners are not the only ones who should be asking “what” questions about learning content. Before creating eLearning, IDs and other stakeholders should be answering similarly reflective questions about the purpose and goals of the learning content, what their hoped-for outcomes are, and what population they are serving.

Analyzing expectations before creating content can ensure that the learners get relevant eLearning content that considers their knowledge level and their in-the-workflow needs—rather than a fire hose of content that covers everything, with no clear goal.

So what?

The “so what” phase moves the learner or ID into deeper analysis and critical reflection.

The ID might consider: Why is this content needed? What are learners expected to do differently once they’ve completed the training? How might a learner’s previous experience and knowledge affect how she reacts to this material?

These questions might help IDs connect learning content more closely with specific work tasks, corporate goals, or other learning, creating a more coherent and meaningful learner experience.

The learner might reflect on these questions: Did I learn new knowledge or skills? How might I apply these? What does this content reveal about my work responsibilities or role that I didn’t know before? What can I do better as a result? What other knowledge or experience does this enhance?

Thinking deeply about learning content and connecting it to actual work tasks and situations or to related knowledge can help learners cement the learning into long-term memory and enable them to use it more effectively.

Now what?

The final reflective phase is forward-looking. A common problem with corporate training is that is has no measurable impact on performance or on metrics that matter to the organization. Considering the “now what” questions in the design phase can help IDs build in content that will lead to specific desired changes. And asking learners to think about what comes next helps tie in eLearning with their day-to-day work activities and priorities.

IDs might consider “now what” questions during design that address things like situations where the content might apply or specific behaviors or results that managers want to see following training, such as reduced safety incidents, improved compliance scores, or higher customer satisfaction scores. They might also consider other potential consequences of the training: Will learners be better prepared for impending changes in a process? Able to use new equipment? Ready to face increasing automation in their roles? How?

Reflecting on these questions can shape the content—before the eLearning is deployed—to boost its effectiveness.

From the learner’s perspective, the “now what” questions build a bridge from training to doing, connecting what they’ve learned to their current and future roles and tasks. How can they use this information and apply these skills? What new things can they do as a result of learning this skill? How can they use their new knowledge to solve an old or recurring problem?

A reflective framework enhances storytelling

Using the “What? So what? Now what?” reflective framework can improve eLearning by increasing motivation and engagement and helping make learning stick. This is partly because it provides a structure that enhances the ability to tell a story with the eLearning content.

The “what” phase provides context and information; the “so what” phase prompts analysis of that information; and the “now what” phase encourages further reflection and action.

“One way to simplify all of this is to think about the What? So What? Now What? process as the questions your friend would ask you as you tell him/her about a great movie you watched, book you read or concert you attended. Your friend (as the audience) would be quickly bored if you stopped with just the ‘what’—the cold hard facts. They will also want to know how the experience made you feel or what changed as a result of the experience (the ‘so what’) and what you would do with it in the future (the ‘now what’). That is the simple structure in a nutshell,” public speaking consultant Dave Linehan wrote in his blog.

Explore learning science

Offering opportunities for reflection can improve eLearning experiences by engaging learners more deeply and helping them retain and apply what they’re learning. If you’d like to learn more about the science of learning and remembering, register for “Applying Brain Science to Improve Training,” a daylong workshop on October 22, 2019, ahead of DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo, October 23–25, 2019, in Las Vegas.

The workshop, with presenter Art Kohn, explores strategies for designing and developing eLearning that is compatible with how adults learn, process, and remember information.