Updated: June 16, 2016

I’d like to thank Myla Lee for her collaborative feedback so as to ensure that this description of using Need to Knows becomes as effective a support for all grade levels. Follow her on Twitter: @MyTLee3 and myself at: @JMcCarthyEdS


Need to Know Process

Have you ever asked students if they have any questions, and then get in return unresponsive stares? Are there units of study where some or many students seem to fall further and further behind as time goes by? Does it ever seem as if students seem to disengage from the learning experiences?

The answer for all experienced teachers at some point in their career is: Yes.

The Need to Know process (N2K) can have a significant positive impact to addressing these concerns. Often used in Project-Based Learning Units, N2K is a cousin to the KWL strategy in the traditional instructional arena (Reference: One | Two | Three). There are a variety of methods for executing the process, what follows is a core structure. Once implemented, feel free to adjust how you approach the N2K process, while staying true to the Phases.


The N2K process starts on the first day of a PBL or ALE unit (or traditional unit.) After the end in mind is shared, including the major product, performance, or other final assessment, students generate questions about what they need to know about the unit so that they can complete the final artifacts, and all tasks that build towards the culminating event or experience. Here is a photo gallery of examples.

Phase One

Starting the Need to Know process has the potential pitfall of no one asking questions. This is not because the learners don’t have any, but mostly due to their need to have reflection time to put ideas into words. The intent of these following two steps is to provide a structure that honors reflection and collaboration to generate questions before sharing out to the larger group.

  • Use a Think-Pair-Share approach where participants generate an individual list of questions, then share with 1-3 others (Reference: One | Two | Three). Similar questions are combined. The team records questions on a separate post-it note or slip of paper. This prep helps ensure that that students have questions to share.
  • Using a brainstorm format, participants pose questions that the teacher records—on easel paper, whiteboard, or shared file such as Google Docs or Padlet. The teacher may ask clarifying questions, but must not answer any of the questions during this phase, else risk stopping the flow. Nor should the teacher include their own questions. If they add their own questions, students will stop contributing. This move takes ownership away from the students. During later lessons, the teacher can insert their questions at anytime, just not on the Need to Know list–that’s student owned.

Phase Two

A common concern raised by teachers is that even when learners understand content, they struggle with making connections to the project side of the PBL unit. Like referring to the Driving Question on a daily basis, frequent reviewing the N2Ks helps learners see how content is related to the project. It’s a formative assessment check by the teacher and students for the common level of understanding.

  • Revisit the N2K process often every week for formative assessment feedback. The number of times may vary depending on the age and needs of the students. While there are no hard rules for frequency here is a suggested guide:

Grades pre-K to 4: Revisit on a daily basis.

Grades 5 to 6: Revisit 3 to 5 days a week.

Grades 7-12: Revisit 2 to 3 days a week.

  • Teachers can review the questions to decide on mini-workshops or breakout sessions to support specifically identified needs. Running such small groups is helpful to meet the needs of some students while others progress with the tasks.
  • The teacher checks with the participants about questions from the list that have been addressed via instruction. Using a response system such as thumbs up, to the side, and down or clickers, learners indicate their level of understanding:

Thumb Up: I understand the answer to the question.

Thumb to the Side: I have some questions, but I feel comfortable enough to proceed.

Thumb Down: I don’t understand enough. I need more support with that question.

  • If there is consensus of Thumb Up and To the side, the question is checked as addressed. But if even one learner shows a Thumb down, the question remains unchecked, and the teacher has formative feedback that more work needs to be done. The teacher decides how to proceed, whether to review, coach in small groups, or incorporate support into the lessons that follow. Students are empowered because they determine when a topic is fully addressed or needs more work.

Phase Three

At the beginning of a PBL unit, students generally do not know the complexities of the curriculum. If they did, the unit could be skipped. Learners don’t know what they don’t know. As questions are checked off, participants’ understanding deepens until they are in a place to ask the more complex questions. It’s this reason why it’s critical to revisit the N2Ks each week.

  • Repeat the steps from Phase One. Have students generate more questions based on their new level of understanding of the content and concepts. This is indicative when there is group consensus of the new level of knowledge.

Here’s an example of a 3rd grader who generated his/her own Need to Know list based on the on-going project work. There was no prompting by the teacher. The student initiated and advocated the thinking to the teacher.

Why craft questions instead of statements?

Framing N2Ks in question format sets up inquiry opportunities. If we want learners to develop questioning skills than N2Ks is a process to coach them with multiple opportunities to shape their queries. There is a level of mystery with questions that can lead to “uncovering” information or potentially competing ideas. Such questions can raise engagement by learners as they search for answers, which often times lead to deeper and more complex questions.

Need to Know Considerations


The appearance of Need to Know lists can vary. It could be a list:

  • Hand-written on easel paper or a white board
  • Typed in a shared electronic document such as Google Docs or Padlet.
  • Displaying post-it notes on a wall or virtually (see Padlet)
  • Posting sentence strips or masking tape with the written questions
  • Consider having two columns. The left is for questions that are about the content, skills, and concept needs. It also includes needs of the client or target audience based on the final product(s). The right is for logistical and miscellaneous questions that may not directly relate to the project learning or support of the final product.

 Managing Question Generation

When facilitating the participants generating questions, the teacher wants to capture the inquiries as they relate to learning of content so that the key products will demonstrate quality. During the process, some questions will be logistical in nature, such as time frame, material options, web tool choices, or color choices. All these questions should be honored, while at the same time the teacher needs to redirect the focus back to the academic needs. One solution is having a two-column list (see Display section) or having a parking lot for such questions. It’s also fine for the teacher to ask students to refocus their questions back to the academic needs, such as: “What other questions do you have regarding the (insert content/product)?”

(Update 5/9/2015) QFT approach

The Question Formulation Technique by The Right Question Institute is another approach to coaching students on generating appropriate and helpful questions during the Need to Know Process. The steps as explained in “Sharing the Power of the Question” by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in ASCD Express are:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, critique, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Here are additional resources to develop skill with the QFT.

 Share your experiences and links to examples of using the Need to Know process in the Comments section below. Several ideas may be added for the benefit of everyone.

Here is a photo gallery of examples.