71 K-W-L Reflective Learning

Joel Gladd

K-W-L Training

One of the most basic and commonly used strategies for fostering reflective thinking in education is known as K-W-L training. Initially developed by Donna M. Ogle in 1986 to foster deep reading, it encourages intentional learning and transfer by clearly outlining the three cognitive steps implied by all significant learning experiences:

K: What do I know?

W: What do I want to know?

L: What have I learned?

The first stage, “What do you know?”, activates prior knowledge. Activating prior knowledge simply means recalling whatever information or experience you or others already have that relates to the topic at hand. This activation is akin to brainstorming and can be done in groups or individually. For example, if a student is asked to write about racial privilege in education, they will begin writing from their own experience and beliefs about the topic. What racial privilege looks like to some will be radically different from others, and this highly localized, anachronistic account is entirely appropriate as a starting place.

The second stage, “What do you want to know?”, activates critical thinking and demands that the student begin thinking beyond their biases. Here the student should begin identifying gaps in their thinking. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous news briefing from February 12, 2002 about whether there was enough evidence to invade Iraq captured the importance of identifying these gaps:

…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Rumsfeld’s position on whether to invade Iraq ultimately led to disastrous consequences, but the briefing shows how this basic cognitive move—the ability to identify different kinds of knowledge—is a crucial starting point, not least for those making important decisions. The subtle distinctions between different kinds of “knowns” and “unknowns” are based on the Johari Window (not Rumsfeld). For K-W-L exercises, it’s mostly important that a student identify the “known unknowns.” Before beginning the research process or reading exercise, each practitioner should have a list of questions to help guide the experience. According to Ogle, this simple list of questions is what allows them to “be in charge in their learning and actively pursue their own quest for knowledge.”[1]

The third and final stage of K-W-L is to reflect by asking the question, “What have I learned?” This reflective stages corresponds in some ways to the diegetic gap of narrative reflections. And indeed, by the end of the K-W-L training a learner has indeed gone through an experience. The final move also encourages the student to transfer knowledge from the current situation to other contexts.

Critical Reading with K-W-L

Ogle’s article from 1986 originally treated K-W-L as a reading exercise, using the example of an article about black widow spiders. In the example, the teacher begins by writing Black Widow spider on the chalkboard and then fields responses from students (K). Some of the kids knew someone who got bitten by a black widow, while others saw a TV show or read another article about them. As the students talk, the teacher records the responses on the board and asks follow-up questions. By the end of this group brainstorming, each student was expected to have their own list of questions they expected to be answered by the reading (W). Finally, as the students read the article (aloud or to themselves), they were expected to take notes on which questions were and weren’t answered (L).

Ogle’s very basic approach was designed for K-12  and can be extended to any learning environment.  At the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, for example, teachers use K-W-L in Radiology courses to encourage students to read deeply and critically.

Research Writing K-W-L: The I-Search Essay

K-W-L strategies are built into Ken Macrorie’s I-Search paper, developed in 1988. Unlike many research essays, Macrorie’s I-Search essay encourages students to use the first person. The basic formula follows the K-W-L charts used in K-12:

  • Search Story: The student introduces the paper by writing about a topic they’re curious about, as well as what they already know (K) about it. From here, they should begin identifying gaps in their knowledge—what do they want to know (W)—and use those gaps to develop interesting questions. These questions show curiosity and help drive the research.
  • Search Results: The bulk of the essay is devoted to writing about the research process—what the student learned (L)—and showing what information they were able to churn up. This section requires that the student practice source-finding strategies as well as properly integrate the information.

Search Reflections: Finally, I-Search essays often end by reflecting more generally on the experiment, making connections with other contexts and future situations. As with other forms of reflective writing, this final move fosters transfer.


  1. Donna M. Ogle, "K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text." The Reading Teacher, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Feb., 1986), p. 567.

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Write What Matters Copyright © 2020 by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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