Student Insight for Heart-Mind Well-being


“Aha” moments happen when we have a sudden discovery or realization. When we gain insight the “aha” experience influences our well-being. One way to improve Heart-Mind well-being is to choose strategies that facilitate the leap between an “aha” experience, and the development of insight. Insight comes when we clearly understand our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Researchers have found that insight improves problem solving skills and self-regulation while preventing depression, anxiety and stress[1].  

Insight, and its influence on well-being, doesn’t just happen on its own. Schools, for example, deepen many aha’s so they become insights for students. This may be a regular occurrence in the classroom, or may be an intentional approach designed for certain learning experiences. Take community service learning, volunteering or school leadership opportunities as examples. Research tells us that “students who take time to reflect on service-learning experiences will get more from those experiences.[2]

The following questions[3] take students through a process of examining what, so what and now what. In order not to overwhelm, choose and adapt questions and include some before, during and after the experience.

WHAT: the facts

  • (before) what do I expect to get from this experience?
  • what happened?
  • what was your role?
  • what did you observe?
  • what issue is being addressed?
  • what were your initial expectations?

SO WHAT: an analysis of the experience

  • did you learn a new skill or discover an interest?
  • did you hear, smell, feel anything that surprised you?
  • how is your experience different from what you expected?
  • what were the most difficult or satisfying parts of the experience? Why?
  • what did you learn about the people/community/school?
  • how did the experience relate to your course work?
  • what are some of the pressing needs/issues in the community/school?
  • what seems to be the root causes of the issues addressed?
  • what other work is currently happening to address the issue?
  • what values, opinions, decisions have been made or changed through this experience?
  • What sort of things made you feel uncomfortable? Why?

NOW WHAT: future implications

  • how do we take what we have learned and convert it into action in the community/school we are in?
  • what would happen if you choose to do nothing?
  • what would you like to learn more about, related to this project/issue?
  • what info can you share with your peers or the community?
  • if you could do the project again, what would you do differently?
  • Complete this sentence: Because of my experience, I am….

When choosing a method or student activity, evidence suggests that it be linked to the experience. If students volunteer in the community, for example, an activity that includes communicating back to the public through a newspaper or art exhibit may enhance the learning opportunity. Consider methods such as:

  • journals  
  • art project
  • ethnographies (field notes)
  • case study papers
  • multimedia presentations
  • presentation to community
  • poster presentation
  • student led dialogue
  • group discussion
  • mapping
  • videos
  • letters to the editor
  • blog
  • social media images/posts

The path to insight appears to be a combination of emotional reflection AND problem solving. Educators and youth leaders who aim to facilitate insight engage students in thought provoking questions to get the most out of any learning experience.


In one study, participants with the highest levels of insight were both significantly more satisfied with their lives and happier than participants with medium or low levels of insight.

The Center for Community-Engaged Learning at the University of Minnesota focuses efforts on getting students involved in the local community. Reflection is one key element of how they make these experiences effective based on the Experiential Learning Cycle.

The What, So What, Now What approach is originally attributed to Terry Borton (1970).

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.