It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

The ‘What’ Model

Gary Rolfe, Dawn Freshwater & Melanie Jasper, 2001

& John Driscoll, 2007

What is this model?…

This is a ‘common sense’ – ‘no-nonsense’ model at first sight, as you can tell from the name of the model. The three questions that look slightly deceptively easy and short, are prompts which require slightly longer and more in depth answers than they suggest. Although some will present this as a linear model (see further down), and you may think it is from the list of 3 simple questions, it’s another circular model, of which the ‘What next’ question is the start for the next circle of ‘what’.

So… this is what the model looks like (I had some fun with this, creating a ‘nonchalant’ looking graphic in which nevertheless a lot of work has gone into, just like the model itself…). As you can see, it’s circular, which reflects the learning taking place in the sense that learning doesn’t stand by itself, but is based on practice which then feeds back into the next action, which triggers the next question: “What?”. Only, Rolfe et al. implied ‘the action’ or event on which the reflection is or will be based, where other theorists have stated this explicitly.Rolfe on reflection and the reflective what model.

Driscoll or Rolfe et al.?

The ‘What’ model can be traced back to Terry Borton who used the ‘What?-So what?-Now What?’ (1970) process to describe the process of developing educational materials. By both Rolfe et al. (2001) and Driscoll (2007), the ‘What?’ model was initially conceptualised around nursing practice to inform the reflection process and supervision for medical staff.

How does it work?

The model is in itself simplistic, as I mentioned, because it leaves the self-reflecting person to fill in a lot of blank space. The list of questions one can ask in each one of the 3 boxes could be long. The ‘so what’ box especially is a bit vague and leaves room for a lot of reflection. This could be around what the action to be reflected on triggered. Or the subtext can also pose the implicit philosophical questions on why it matters!

If we come back to the ‘reflection on action’ question, example questions could be:

  1. “What?”: Describe what you did or what happened? What went wrong and what went right? What could have been done better? What needs to be done the same next time?…
  2. “So what?”: Why does it matter? Meaning, what are the consequences of what happened and how? How can we derive meaning from what the description says. …
  3. “What next?”: What can be taken away? How can we make the meaning we derived in the previous step work? What do the consequences of what happened mean for any next similar event or action? What action needs to be taken next, as a consequence of what was learnt from the previous two steps or questions?…

However, if we change the terminology, the model is ‘tied down’ a bit more and the three questions become shorthand to help us remember and apply this with more ease in practice, with this extra knowledge of what they could be:

  1. “What?”: Description
  2. “So what?”: Theory/theories that apply – or knowledge that applies
  3. “What next?”: Action

Another way to look at this is explained in Rolfe et al.’s work, which is based on Schön’s work about the difference between linear/technical rationality (where scientific research is applied to practice) and reflective practice (where practice is the basis). The first is linear and decontextualised (not based on daily practice) knowledge (Rolfe et al., 2001, p.14). The second is circular and knowledge is derived from practice itself, rather than decontextualised knowledge or theory. In the work, Rolfe et al. describe reflective practice as a circular process as follows:

  1. Practice – What is your practice?
  2. Knowledge – What knowledge is there to help you reflect?
  3. Reflection – Actual reflection based on practice and knowledge; which in turn feeds back into your practice.

Driscoll revised his own 1994 model as follows (Driscoll, 2007, p.27):

  • What? – A description of the event.
  • So what? – An analysis of the event.
  • Now what? – Proposed actions following the event.

He further states that “each of the three elements interacts within the different stages of an experiential learning cycle” (Driscoll, 2007, p.27).Reflection theory of career guidance and Driscoll's "What model" of reflection.

Adapted from Figure 2.1, Driscoll 2007, p.27

Importantly, he further suggests that the ‘What?’ model should not be treated as a model of how reflection should be done but merely as a framework or structure for making reflection on events more meaningful, either as a one to one reflection tool or preferably as a tool to be used with another person (Driscoll, 2007, p.27).

Technical Rationality versus Reflective Practice:

To further illustrate the two ways of approaching reflection above, in the illustration below, within technical rationality, practice is built up from the knowledge gained from research. The only reflection is on the knowledge gained. On the right we find the reflective model that is the basis of Rolfe’s model and a lot of other models of reflection for professional practice. The process start with professional practice, from which knowledge is gained and this in turn prompts reflection which then informs practice, and the circle continues. Knowledge in this model is in turn informed by research and theory, which is not included in the diagram in Rolfe et al., 2001, p.14, from which the illustration above is adapted. This way, the practitioner becomes theorist through reflection.

Technical rationality versus reflective practice models reflectionAdapted from Rolfe et al., 2001, p.10-11


Further critique

I added three dots at the end to each of the three different items in the first list of three above because there may be many more questions someone can ask within this model. This is what is positive about a very broad model that leaves a lot of flexibility: the questions or prompts depend on the action reflected upon, the context, the situation, the purpose of the initial action etc… This openness in turn means that the model lacks detail, which needs to be filled in by the user.

I would argue that this model requires a good deal of self-awareness, situation awareness and ‘reflection on reflection’ in order to ask ‘the right questions’ or questions that help reflection. The danger is that Rolfe et al.’s model can be taken too lightly and the right questions may not be asked. This can in turn mean that not enough reflection may take place. This can to some extent be resolved by using this model in dialogue with another person (a colleague, a manager, or another professional) where both can challenge each other to reflect deeper, triggering a dialectic approach. Driscoll himself recognised this may be a good model for those who need a basis from which to reflect in that he suggested that once [practitioners] are more familiar with the process of reflection, they may want to adopt more complex models of reflection (Driscoll, 2077, p.28). He states that he developed the model after queries from nurses on how to reflect.

What do you think?

  • Could you use this model in a meaningful way?
  • How does it apply to your situation, your practice and your personality?
  • What can you see as the upsides and downsides to this model?
  • Is it a model you will find easy to use to good effect?

Useful links


  • Borton, T. (1970). Reach, touch, and teach; student concerns and process education. New York, Mcgraw-Hill.
  • Driscoll, J. (2007). Practising Clinical Supervision : a Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Baillière Tindall Elsevier
  • Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D. and Jasper, M. (2001). Critical reflection in nursing and the helping professions: a user’s guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


A lot of Rolfe’s work is located around care and nursing. This video is nevertheless really useful for career practitioners.