The What? So What? And Now What? Of Critical Reflection

Dr. Natasha Kenny, PhD, Taylor Institute of Teaching and Learning 

July 30, 2014


Critical reflections can provide a great opportunity for us to evaluate and document students’ learning progress

Critical reflection occurs when we analyze and challenge our presuppositions and evaluate the appropriateness of our knowledge, understanding and beliefs, in light of our present contexts (Mezirow, 1990). Many of us would support the importance of fostering critical reflection in the classroom – for both instructors and students. As highlighted by Brookfield (1995), there are many benefits to engaging in critical reflection including:

  • gaining new perspectives and understandings;
  • clarifying our assumptions and beliefs, and developing a clear rationale for our actions and approaches;
  • promoting a positive sense of self-awareness and self-confidence
  • taking informed action; and,
  • focusing on a philosophy of continuous growth and improvement.

As instructors, critical reflections can provide a great opportunity for us to evaluate and document students’ learning progress. As we view learning through our student’s eyes, we can also garner feedback on our own instructional approaches and success.

Those of us who have engaged in critical reflection, or have used critical reflection in the classroom will note how difficult it can be to engage in the process. At the 2013 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) Conference, Gavan Watson and I reflected on how difficult it is to “teach” critical reflection. Despite seeing the value over time, students often communicate their dislike for engaging in the process. In addition to clearly communicating why they are doing what they are doing (i.e. by defining and linking intended course learning outcomes to activities and assignments which involve critical reflection), it is helpful to provide structured opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection both informally (e.g. classroom discussions) and formally (e.g. graded assignments) throughout the duration of the course. Aronson (2011) provides a very practical overview of additional strategies to foster critical reflection.

One of the most straight-forward frameworks that I have used to support critical reflection in my personal and professional practice is: What? So What? Now What?

What? What happened? What did you learn? What did you do? What did you expect? What was different? What was your reaction?

So what? Why does it matter? What are the consequences and meanings of your experiences? How do your experiences link to your academic, professional and/or personal development?

Now what? What are you going to do as a result of your experiences? What will you do differently? How will you apply what you have learned?

Whatever your approach to critical reflection, one thing is for certain – sustained practice illuminates the value of engaging in the process, and eases the pain.

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Aronson, L. (2011) Twelve tips for teaching reflection at all levels of medical education. Medical Teacher, 33(3), 200-205.

Brookfield, S.D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.  Jossey-Bass, CA.

Mezirow, J. 1990.  How critical reflection triggers transformative learning.  In pages 1-20 of J. Mezirow (Ed). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Fransisco.