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Week 2: Understanding your skills and abilities

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Week 2: Understanding your skills and abilities


Last week you explored your life experiences, your motivations and some of the practical realities around work options. Hopefully you are beginning to develop ideas about the kind of work you aspire to do or are clearer about how to bring more of yourself and your passions to the fore in work you already do. Knowing what you want, of course, is only part of the challenge. You need to have, or to gain, the knowledge and skills necessary for your work choices, whether they are paid or voluntary. So, this week you’ll consider the knowledge and skills you already have and how you might want to add to these to meet your goals.

As with Week 1, you’ll need your notebook to jot down your thoughts and responses to the activities.

Watch Wendy introduce Week 2:

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By the end of this week, you will be able to:

  • list the knowledge, skills and experience you already have
  • identify which knowledge, skills and experience you want to make the most of
  • understand any changes you might want to make to your knowledge and skills, in order to pursue your aspirations.

1 The difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’

Photo of a man cooking.
Figure 1 Knowledge and skills

Simply put, ‘knowledge’ is information, facts or understanding about something. So, you might ‘know’ the rules of cricket, or the recipe for a chicken curry, or how to mend a bicycle puncture. There is a difference, though, between ‘knowing what’ and ‘knowing how.’ Knowing the recipe for chicken curry is not the same as having the practical skills needed to make it. For example, if you have never chopped anything, you probably won’t have acquired the necessary knife skills. This is a key difference between knowledge and skill. A ‘skill’ means that you are able to do something. Of course, there are different levels of skill and practice is usually the key to improving these. As your chicken curry making skills improve with practice, in effect you gain what might be called practical knowledge as a result of developing these skills.

It is important to have or to learn the skills and knowledge you need for the kind of work you want to do. You begin by looking at the roles you play in your life and what these require of you. This will help you to see what knowledge and skills you have acquired along the way. Then you are invited to do an ‘audit’ of your skills and to assess how well you do them, so that you build up a clear picture of how well you do things. This will help you to appreciate your strengths.

2 What roles are played in life?

Described image
Figure 2 Roles I play in life

Imagine yourself as an actor in your own life, like a character in a movie. You probably play a lot of different roles. You might have a role as a parent, as an employee, as a friend, and sometimes, like now, as a student. Each of the roles you play demands different things of you.

One way of uncovering the skills you have already developed is to begin with the range of roles you play in life.

For example, if you have previously been a student you would have needed the skills of learning, of time management and of communicating in writing. Perhaps you enjoy DIY? If so, you have developed not only practical skills but planning and organising skills as well. If you are a parent, you have developed childcare skills, but also probably those of budgeting, time management, delegating, cooking, and so on. By chairing meetings of a club, you develop skills of dealing with people, as well as those of managing the discussion.

Obviously, there are many more examples that could have been included here, but hopefully these will spark your own ideas for the activity in the next section.

2.1 My roles in life

Look at Tom’s (an example learner) list below. It shows some of the roles he plays and the kinds of thing these roles demand of him.

Main roles I play …

  1. Student representative – attending meetings to give views of my class to teachers/lecturers, communicating with people on the same course as me.
  2. Volunteer at Samaritans’ helpline – listening to people talk about their worries, planning my shifts to fit with other team members and my family.
  3. Head gardener – teaching summer students the basics, operating machinery, planning seasonal jobs, so they are shared out across the team.
  4. Son – driving my elderly mother to see her friends, using the internet to do her online shopping with her.
  5. Treasurer of pub darts team – taking and banking membership fees, paying expenses, giving reports.

Now think about your own roles in life in this next activity.

Activity 1 My roles in life

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes
Part 1

This activity will help you to identify the roles you have played in your life so far and thus provide you with a basis for considering the skills they have helped you to develop.

First jot down in your notebook the roles you play most frequently and just one or two key activities associated with them. If you find it difficult to identify roles, go back to your work on interests and passions from Week 1 and see if these remind you of any.

Another memory jogger is to ask yourself who you have been for other people. For example, are you a sister or a brother, or a manager to your team?

(Adapted from Career planning and job-seeking workbook, Open University Careers Service.)


Your list might have a combination of roles. Some to do with family or friends, others related to work you have done, or to hobbies or interests. Equally, your list might also include roles that you feel have been ‘given’ to you by others and you would prefer not to play. For example, are you always expected to be the ‘fun maker’ in your group of friends, even if you do not feel like doing that?

Part 2

Now you’ve identified your different roles, consider which ones you find more satisfying than others and the roles that you feel you perform well. Again, write down your thoughts in your notebook. Copy Table 1 into your notebook or or you can complete this in your Resource pack.

Table 1 Roles
Roles I most enjoyRoles I think I do well

You will gain the most from this activity if you take a little time to reflect on what you have written. Use the following questions to trigger your thoughts and write down any answers that occur to you in your notebook.

  1. Are you surprised by the range of things you do and take for granted?
  2. Were you able to identify the kinds of action you have to take in each of these roles?
  3. Did they begin to suggest any skills that might be associated with doing those very different kinds of role?
  4. Were you surprised at which roles you enjoyed or not, and which you felt you performed well or not?
  5. Which roles might you want to continue and which, if any, might you want to stop playing?

You may be surprised by the number of different roles that you have, as it is not something that most people ever consider. Most of them you probably take for granted. Hopefully, you can now see the full range of roles you have, and will be able to think more clearly about the abilities you have that enable you to carry these out.

In the next section you’ll be able to reflect on the abilities you have that go with these roles.

3 What abilities have these roles required of me?

Illustration of a squirrel reading a map.
Figure 3 Abilities

Hopefully, the last activity showed you that most roles you play involve doing different things. Even in a particular job, there are often different roles within it. For instance, a healthcare worker might be both a chiropodist and a manager, or a production worker will also be a problem solver when the work does not go smoothly.

In Activity 1 you identified some of the skills you have gained from performing different roles. When you use these skills, you are demonstrating your ability to do something. At a personal level, people might refer to you as being able to resolve production problems or as an able map reader, which then suggests that you have that ability. Generally, the more you use an ability, the stronger it becomes. It is important when managing your career to know what ‘abilities’ you have and how well they suit the kind of work you want to do.

The next activity will help you to become more aware of the abilities you’ve developed through the roles you have already identified.

Activity 2 My abilities

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

First look at the table below. It lists things you might have done in the roles you play and expresses them as ‘abilities’. For instance, you might have had to ‘organise’ team meetings or to ‘campaign’ to raise money for a charity. Read each item on the list and decide if it sounds like you. For the ones that sound most like you, write them down in your notebook and make a note of the role each is associated with. You can also complete this in your Resource pack.

Table 2 My abilities

(Adapted from Career planning and job-seeking workbook, The Open University,2014.)


Look back over this list of abilities. Notice how useful they are in helping you to be precise about what you can do. This helps you to present yourself positively when talking to people who might be helpful to you in developing your career. You will learn more about this in Week 5.

This activity has given you an overview of the kinds of ability you have. Now you need to say something about the activities that helped you to develop them. The next step is to identify the abilities which are most true of you, and link them to activities that enabled you to develop them. You will do this in the next section.

3.1 Evidence of my abilities

Thinking about what you have done shows how you have developed or used your abilities in particular roles. This is very useful for both job applications and interviews.

This next activity will help you do just that.

Activity 3 How have I shown or developed my abilities?

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Table 3 shows an example of how you might link your different abilities to activities that you have carried out.

Table 3 Abilities
Role Ability usedEvidence of ability
Social Club secretary Liaise Have to coordinate dates of meetings with all committee members and the community centre manager for room booking.
Enhance The previous secretary used to write very long meeting notes, which people complained about. So I introduced a short summary that just records actions, decisions and news. The chairman said this was a big improvement.

Copy a blank version of Table 3 into your notebook or you can also complete this in your Resource pack  and fill in the list of roles and associated abilities you identified from Activity 2.

Next, think of any specific activities or actions, which show the ability that describes you, and add these to the third column. Evidence means things you have done that show you have used the ability you want to demonstrate. Be as specific as you can. It can be helpful to think of particular occasions when you used the ability.

You are not, at this point, trying to include everything but to pick out significant roles and abilities that have helped you to develop. Aim to include between three to five roles.


Creating the list may have felt difficult. After all, asking yourself how you know you have an ability, and identifying evidence to show it, is not something you do every day. So pause now and give yourself a bit of credit. You are developing a new skill! Even if your completed table is not quite as you would like it yet, hopefully you can now see how useful this will be when you come to prepare for a job application or for an interview. You’ll learn more about this in Weeks 6 and 7.

In the next two sections you will develop your thinking further. You will learn how to gather evidence of your abilities so that you can use this to support your job applications. It is helpful to start to add to your table by linking the abilities you have to any type of work you have already done. Remember that ‘work’ does not only mean something you are paid for. Interpret it as widely as you find helpful.

Learning about something often develops abilities that are easily overlooked. For instance, you may have studied on a course, served an apprenticeship, or travelled and learned about other places, cultures or people.

The next two sections invite you to think through both your work and learning experiences.

4 Skills developed through work

An image of a shop assistant helping a customer.
Figure 4 Skills

By now, you are beginning to see that all the roles in your life require you to have certain skills. Some of these roles may have been in a social context, others in paid or unpaid work situations. In this section, you will focus on roles connected to work in some way. All ‘work’ counts for the purpose of this section.

Have a look at the example of Angela below. Notice that it is not clear from Table 4 whether the jobs Angela did were paid or voluntary. This is not important since you acquire the skills whether or not someone is paying for your work. The table also shows when Angela has done similar types of job, but that her responsibilities might have been different, and so she was able to extend the skills she had developed.

Table 4 Angela’s work and personal achievements
DatesEmployer/organisation (include clubs, community groups, etc.)TitleResponsibilities, duties and activitiesTraining (include formal training, coaching and workshops)Skills developed
1986 – 1989W H Smith LtdShop assistantManagement of magazine department and some staff management

Handling customers

Use of cash tills

Handling cash

Customer care

Motivating others

Time management


1991 – 1992Derngate TheatreFront of house staff

Checking tickets

Seating customers

Refreshment sales

Basic First Aid

Understanding of team work

Interpersonal skills


Listening and questioning


1993 – 1994Liverpool Higher Education CollegeLibrary assistant

Issue desk duties

Cataloguing books

Customer training

IT training

Cataloguing skills

IT and keyboard skills

Inputting data into spreadsheets and databases

1995 – 1999Sailing ClubMembership secretary

Recruiting new members

Managing membership subscriptions

Database development

Accounting skills

1995 – 1998De Montfort UniversityAssistant librarian

Management of Library Social Sciences section

Supervision of Library assistants

Management training

Decision taking

Budget management

Providing relevant and appropriate information

1998 – to dateMilton Keynes UniversityAssistant librarianCreation of new library service

Business management

Process costing

Information literacy skills

Report writing

1998 – 2001Film clubPublicity secretary

Organising publicity leaflets

Writing film reviews


Working to a brief

Use this example to help you with the next activity.

Activity 4 My work and personal achievements

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

This activity helps you to look back over your own work and personal achievements and to decide what skills they have helped you to develop.

Copy a blank version of Table 4 into your notebook or you can also complete this in your Resource pack.


After completing this activity pause and allow yourself to feel proud of the abilities you have already developed. It is important to value what you can do. It will help you to present yourself positively to people who can offer you work opportunities.

Of course, work experiences are only part of the story. Any experiences that have helped you to learn can be just as influential in developing your capabilities. The next section, therefore, encourages you to review these too.

5 Skills developed through learning

Described image
Figure 5 Learning

When you completed the previous activity, you were asked to think about any training you might have had in any particular jobs. As well as this, you might have done courses outside work, such as evening classes for personal interest. You might have participated in a charity event that involved learning new things, such as deciding to learn to ride a bike to participate in a charity cycling challenge.

It can sometimes be difficult to see the full range of skills developed through learning. You might be clear that you learned to confidently ride a bike for the charity cycling challenge, but be less aware that while on the ride you developed your ability to talk to strangers more easily. It is easy to know that you have passed a test, or completed a tough climb, but it is sometimes difficult to see how you have changed in subtle ways.

The skills you develop during learning experiences can be a positive influence on your role in your family, your involvement in the community, or in your potential to do a job. There is much to gain from reflecting on your skills and qualities, and seeing how these can be used to enhance your career choices and your personal development. This reflection should help you to identify the more subtle changes as well.

The following activity illustrates this for you.

Activity 5 My skills developed through study

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

This activity illustrates how the benefits of learning are not always obvious and encourages you to think differently about your own learning.

Part 1

Watch the video of actor and OU graduate, Stephen McGann, talking about how studying science added to his skills.

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After you have watched the video all the way through, listen to it again, making notes on the skills Stephen says he developed. Record the main skills in the box below. You do not need to record these in your notebook because they are Stephen’s experiences, not your own.

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Part 2

Select a learning experience of your own and reflect on it for a few minutes. It is up to you whether you choose a formal learning experience, like a course of study, or a life experience such as moving country, or becoming a parent or grandparent.

Imagine, like Stephen, you have been invited to make a short video explaining to someone else how that experience developed different parts of you or new skills that you have been able to deploy in your life more generally. What would you say? Creating short rehearsed pieces of explanation about your learning and skills is good preparation for interviews.

Write a few sentences in your notebook as you might say them in a video. Then try reading aloud what you wrote.


When you read your piece aloud, did it sound convincing to your? If not, you might want to keep trying until you hear that note of confidence that Stephen McGann displayed.

As you have seen in last few sections, skills are acquired in many different aspects of our lives. The main areas where we acquire skills are:

  • working
  • studying
  • volunteering
  • caring responsibilities
  • having a hobby.

Some of these you may not have even considered before. So, hopefully, you are building a good picture of your own skills now and maybe you won’t take them for granted so much.

Now that you’ve identified the skills that you have developed, you need to consider which you feel most confident with, and which may require further development. The next section gives you that chance.

6 Assessing your skills

Described image
Figure 6 Skills

By now, you will have a clearer picture of how the range of skills in your life, work and study experiences has helped you to develop. Of course, the chances are that you feel more confident in some of your skills than in others, so it is useful, therefore, to develop a view of where your strengths lie and which skills you feel you might lack or need to strengthen.

For this you need to do a stock-take, or an ‘audit’ of your skills. A ‘skills audit’ is a review and assessment of your existing skills. It allows you to create a profile of your skills, which you can then compare to what you need, both now and in the future, to fulfil your aspirations. You need to think about the skills you have gained through your working, home and social life, as well as those you have developed (or are developing) through a programme of study, such as this one.

The activity that follows in the next section will help you to assess your skills in more detail. It will help you to identify ‘transferable skills’. These are the skills that can be used in more than one role or activity. For example, if you are good at getting people to talk, you could use that skill in counselling someone, or in making their visit to your hair salon more enjoyable.

By auditing your skills in this way, you start to look at them in the way that employers expect, and in the kind of language that you can use in job applications. Many people, especially those who may be returning to work after a break, feel that they are lacking in skills or that the skills they have are rusty. It may be that if you feel you have gaps in your skills, this exercise will help you to identify them, so that you can think about how to plug the gap.

See how you get on with your own skills audit in the next section now.

6.1 My skills: how good am I at them?

The activity that follows will help you to audit your skills. Remember to keep a record of it in your notebook.

Part 1

The first step in your skills audit is to complete a questionnaire that groups skills into categories, such as ‘communication’ or ‘administrative’. It does this because these are of particular importance to employers.

As you complete the questionnaire, consider how well you can carry out each skill described. It can sometimes be helpful to consider yourself in comparison with other people, or to ask people who know you well to comment, so that you get a sense of how strongly you hold these skills.

The important thing is not to devalue yourself through lack of confidence or modesty. If you do, you might prematurely close down some of the work options you are interested in, by persuading yourself that you do not have the skills for it. You would almost certainly undersell yourself to employers or work colleagues.

Download  a copy of the questionnaire now from your Resource pack and complete it. Save the completed file in a safe place on your computer or print it out and keep it with your notebook.

Part 2

Now look at the skills from the questionnaire in which you scored most highly and those you most enjoy. Make a list of both in your notebook.

Look back through the detailed skills descriptions for each of the categories in the questionnaire. Think of particular skills you would like to develop within those descriptions that you’re not yet competent in, but would like to develop. List those as well.

Copy Table 5 into your notebook or download it from your Resource pack and complete it.

Table 5 My skills audit
Skill area (e.g. Communication)Particular skill I would like to develop (e.g. Engaging an audience, giving a presentation)

And finally, which are the skills that you’d most like to use in the future? Write them down in your notebook.


Your notes may show strengths in particular skill areas, such as financial activities. It may show some skill areas that you have not yet developed to any great degree. What matters is the match between your aspirations and your skills.

By thinking about which skill areas you want to use in the future rather than simply those you can use well now, you start to see what strengths you need to build on, and which areas you might need to develop further if you are to achieve your aspirations.

The next section gives you time to think about what you have discovered about yourself in the first two weeks of the course.

7 Pulling your thoughts together

In these first two weeks you have been encouraged to take a step back and to think about how you have got to where you are today. You have given some thought to what interests you, what constraints you need to manage within, and what skills you have developed.

As you have worked through all the activities, you may have had new ideas about the kinds of work you would like to do, ideas about how to do your existing work in new ways, and thoughts about how to make your work better suit your life circumstances.

This next activity allows you to capture some of the conclusions you have come to at this point.

Activity 7 My first reflective review

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

You may well change your views and plans as you progress through the course, but for now, remind yourself of what felt important when you began it.

Read through the results of your work and any notes you have made in your notebook so far. Then write down your answers in your notebook in response to the following questions. Some of the questions draw directly on the activities you have done during these first two weeks. For others, you will need to reflect on new areas and to add them to your thinking.

  • What am I good at?

    Write down the abilities that you would most like to use.

  • What are my main work values?

    Write down the values you would like to fulfil.

  • What would I like to do?

    Write down the occupations or job areas you would like to work in.

  • How would I like to work with people? What kind of environment?

    Write down the kind of contact you would like to have with people, and the kind of environment you would like.

  • What other aspects are important to me?

    Write down any other factors that are important to you, such as location, travel, hours, etc.

  • What changes would I like to make?

    Write down some changes you would like to make in your work life.

(Adapted from Career planning and job-seeking workbook, The Open University,2014.)


This activity should have given you a really good overview of the thoughts you have been developing over the first two weeks of the course. Maybe you have surprised yourself or this has just given you opportunity to put into words the thoughts that you’ve been having for a while. Either way, this is a really great start to your own career planning process.

Your final task for Week 2 is to complete the end-of-week quiz.

8 This week’s quiz

Alongside analysing your own career assets, you are learning about how to assess and refocus your working life by learning new concepts. The end-of-week quiz gives you the opportunity to check your understanding and progress. Again, it consists of five questions and will help you to prepare for the longer Week 4 badged quiz.

Go to:

Week 2 practice quiz.

Open the quiz in a new tab or window (by holding ctrl [or cmd on a Mac] when you click the link).

9 Summary

Your notebook should be filling up nicely now with reflections on what you like to do, the roles and abilities you have, as well as the abilities you feel confident about, and which may need further development. Hopefully, you’re feeling positive about yourself and inspired to keep moving forward. Next week you are going to move on to the next step of the careers planning process – exploring opportunities.

You should now feel that you can:

  • list the knowledge, skills and experience you already have
  • identify which knowledge, skills and experience you want to make the most of
  • understand any changes you might want to make to your knowledge and skills, in order to pursue your aspirations.

You can now go to Week 3.


The Open University (2014) Career planning and job-seeking workbook Milton Keynes, The Open University.


This course was written by Maria Townsend and Gill Gustar.

Some of the material in this course is based on material originally available on the Open University Careers Advisory Service website.

Except for third party materials and otherwise stated in the acknowledgements section, this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.

The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this unit:


Figure 1: © MJTH/; Figure 2: © Thodoris Tibilis/; Figure 3:; Figure 4: © Andresr/; Figure 5: Shutterstock © Goodluz; Figure 6: © Aliwak/Shutterstock.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright owners. If any have been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.

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Week 3