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Session 2: Learning by looking at my life over time


The words ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Today’ and ‘Yesterday’ on a blackboard
Figure 2.1

What can we learn by looking at our life, and our experiences, over time? How can this be helpful for the future?

Session 1 was about looking at yourself in your present situation. However, the person you are now is partly a result of everything that has happened to you in the past and up to the present: who you were with, where you have been, what you have done and the outside events that have affected your life.

We learn from good and bad experiences and the ups and downs of life, but some people may have had extreme events in their life that would be distressing to revisit. If this is the case, you can choose to focus selectively on specific areas of your life.

The value of looking at our roles and experiences, and recognising the influences on our lives, is that we can unpick what really interests and motivates us and start to understand our decision making: is there a pattern? For instance, what we consider important can change over time, or can differ at different points of our life. How we feel about these experiences can vary too.

So, how do we define high points and low points? Are there recurring themes? Do we seem to make the same mistakes, or seem to set ourselves up to fail or repeatedly not reach our potential? Is the picture a series of ups and downs or is the overall pattern one of steady development or steady decline? Perhaps personal development is more important to us than professional development?

In this session you are asked to look at your experience of life, with the aim of working out what skills and abilities you have, in addition to the obvious ones you have gained from education and work experience.

Experiences over time

In this section you will be asked to draw a timeline to plot your life experience. The actual time frame will be up to you – it can include your whole life since childhood, or you might want to focus on recent study or work experience, or on specific roles you might have (such as carer, volunteer or student, for example).

The timeline creates a graphic picture of your life (or a period in your life) that will help you to identify the ups and downs, and also any patterns or recurring themes that you may not have been aware of.

It can be very difficult to look back over our life or our experiences; for some people, this may bring to mind some issues or memories that they would rather not confront. If you find this activity distressing, you may want to omit it or to discuss it with someone you trust. Remember, you can also select which areas of your life you want to focus on. This might be very recent work experience (either paid or unpaid) or you might want to focus more on individual roles you have in life.

Before you try creating a timeline of your own life, we’d like you to look at a couple of examples and think about how they might relate to your own life and experiences.

Activity 2.1 Taking stock of my experiences over time

Timing: You should spend around 10 minutes on this activity.

Look at the example timelines and listen to the audio clips. Then try to answer the questions that follow.

Example 1: Mo’s timeline

Have a look at what Mo’s timeline might look like.

Graphic depicting high points and low points in Mo’s life
Figure 2.2 Mo’s timeline

Now listen to Mo talking about his adult life and the process of his coming to the UK and settling into life in Scotland.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: mo_audio2.mp3
Skip transcript


In 2004, during my last year at university, I started working on a research project with my senior lecturer. In 2007, during this project, some events happened to me and so I had to flee the country and come to the UK.

I remember then I couldn’t speak a word and I didn’t know where I was. I was in a new environment, atmosphere. It took about six months to settle in, in a flat. I had to change address several times because of the situation I was in, and because the condition of the flat wasn’t suitable.

Because I had a kind of bad experience in my career, I wasn’t happy to go back and do any kind of work in my degree subject, in my field. I decided to change my career so I started from scratch. The college places were full so I studied on my own, at the library.

I then got a place at college and was studying ESOL and HNC computing. There were lots of problems in Glasgow. Mostly the difficulties were in my first year living in Scotland. I was in a situation where people attacked me, threw many things at me, and after one year I decided to move to London.

At that time, in 2008, I got my ‘Status’. I tried to stay in London but I couldn’t because there wasn’t any support. It was just a big and crazy city so I decided I had to come back to Glasgow. I tried to go back to college but I had missed so many units on my course I had to wait to start the next year again.

When I came back from London I started working with the British Red Cross. I went on their journalist workshop and short course, and after that I started working with New Voices. From New Voices, I met many other organisations: Scottish Refugee Council, Venture Scotland and Bridges Programmes.

In 2009 Bridges helped me to find some subjects at The Open University. I was doing some of their units such as Learning to change and Starting with maths. I also continued with my study at college on ESOL and HNC computing.

I finished my HNC and I got good marks, and it was surprising for my lecturer because in the first year I was struggling with my problems – personal problems, language and many other things. Then I started studying HND, which was 2010/11. I finished the HND and I started university last year. It’s better now. Hopefully I will finish my degree and move to another city.

End transcript
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Example 2: Ying’s timeline

Have a look at Ying’s timeline.

Graphic depicting high points and low points in Ying’s life
Figure 2.3 Ying’s timeline

Now listen to Ying talking about her adult life and the process of change from growing up and working in China to moving to the UK for work and study.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: reflection_toolkit_ying_aud003.mp3
Skip transcript


My parents were not very educated: they were working to look after three children, and also in China you have to pay for everything. So I wanted to study English, but I didn’t like my teacher so I never studied beyond my entry-level pass.

I got a job in a factory. When I went to the factory, I just realised that other people could make quite good money that I could not. I couldn’t because of my education. And after we moved to a different city, I found it more difficult to find a job, because of my education.

Then my friend helped us. We opened our own shop to sell women’s clothes. The shop was OK – I think it wasn’t good if you wanted to improve your education. I could only sell, and make a small amount of money for myself.

After that I came to Britain. I couldn’t speak any English at all. So I couldn’t do anything, and it was quite bad because suddenly everything’s changed for me. I had my child. I went to college to study English for three years. I got information from our college and a charity (the Bridges Programmes) about the OU.

In this country, if you don’t have an education certificate, you cannot get a job. You can maybe get a job in a Chinese takeaway or Chinese supermarket, but that’s not what I want.

I think now I got a job because I was studying at the OU. It was quite difficult. Sometimes it is too hard and you don’t want to continue. So that’s why I say your friends and your family are quite important, to give encouragement. I am feeling more confident. I am working now as a finance assistant.

End transcript
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Reflection and discussion

Consider the following questions:

  • Have you had any experiences similar to Mo’s or Ying’s?
  • Do you have anything in common?
  • What is different about your life experience?

Make some notes in the activity sheet  provided or in your notebook.


Go to Activity 2.1 of your Reflection Log. Once you have completed the activity, make sure you save the document again.

If you are working in a group, you might want to share your answers and discuss your notes with each other, or with your mentor if you have one.

My timeline

Woman drawing an arrow between points A and B
Figure 2.4

Activity 2.2 My timeline

Timing: You should spend around 15 minutes on this activity.

Having looked at examples by Mo and Ying, try drawing your own timeline. You can do this on paper – we have provided a document  that you may want to use for this – or online at (The Open University is not responsible for third party websites or the information you choose to share with them.)

The website has instructions on how to use this free online tool. If you prefer not to use this, or don’t have access to the internet, don’t worry – pen and paper will do just as well. The drawing tools available in most word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, can also be used to produce your timeline or other diagrams.

If you don’t want to, or have difficulty in producing a diagram, remember that what is important in this activity is the information or understanding from your experience that is brought to mind. If you prefer, you can simply make a list of the high points and low points of the period of your life and reflect on these.


Go to Activity 2.2 in your Reflection Log. Once you have completed your activity, make sure you save the document again. If you want to make any notes for yourself, a page for notes is provided in the Reflection Log following Activity 2.2.

Remember, it’s up to you what you want to include and the time frame you want to focus on – your whole life, or a specific period. It doesn’t need to be to scale. Low points are on the bottom half of the page and high points on the top half, just as Mo and Ying have done. You do not need to include anything that you want to keep private.

If you are in a group and you would like to share your timeline, you can do so by printing it and pinning it up on the wall. If you are working online, save the timeline as an image file and post it to an online forum or via social media.

Learning from experience

We all experience ups and downs in life: good points and bad points. Whatever our experience, we are learning as we go. Learning is not something that stops when we leave childhood behind. Learning is lifelong. Some learning is about ourselves: the type of person we are and our strengths and qualities. Other learning is about skills, qualifications, understanding ideas and concepts, or the society we live in. For example, Mo and Ying learned about the process of adapting to life in a new country.

We’d now like you to move from plotting what happened, when, to thinking about what you’ve learned from these different roles and experiences, and how you’ve developed as a person over time.

But first, think again about Mo and Ying. They have both had their share of ups and downs. What did they learn from these experiences?

Example 1: Mo's timeline with learning points

Look at Mo’s timeline again but with some key learning points added.

Graphic depicting Mo’s timeline with learning points added
Figure 2.5 Mo’s timeline with learning points added

Now listen to what Mo says about what he has learned from experience.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: mo_audio3.mp3
Skip transcript


When I was in Iran, I wasn’t the person who had the right to make a decision, so I needed to see what society gave me, offered me in terms of education and in terms of jobs. But I think here it is different. I decided to do computing. College was really supportive, especially my lecturers.

For a time I was working with two or three friends in an organisation as a volunteer, so I was trying to help myself to change, to learn new things, new schemes. It was a good experience. It was helping me, I tried to learn new ways of working. I think I was the kind of person who tried to adapt myself to new situations. Some of my friends are jobseekers, some of them are looking for courses at colleges, but I can say that maybe I was lucky or maybe I wanted it so I did it. I worked hard.

I would say for my education, finding a job, Bridges has been supportive. I can say every time I had problems and I needed some advice I just picked up the phone and asked Bridges. The best point was entering into university, proving to myself I could do it, when there were lots of barriers. With the other guys it’s different but English is my second language, so I have to memorise everything twice. Life as a student is really different to life as an asylum seeker or refugee.

There were lots of problems in Glasgow. Mostly the difficulties were in my first year living in Scotland. It’s better now, I can understand Scotland, Glasgow. I have been in Glasgow, I think, almost four, five years. There are some different things, but I learned I can do it. If I want to I can.

End transcript
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Mo talks here about what he has learned from the different roles, environments and situations he has been in. His timeline shows a lot of ‘ups’, indicating that he has been able to take something from each situation and move on.

Here are some key words from Mo’s comments:

  • adapting, change, decision
  • studying, working, proving
  • barriers, support, advice.

By reflecting on his past experience, Mo learned that he is hard-working and adaptable, and that he is capable of learning new things and coping with difficult situations. He has learned that change takes time – especially when you find yourself in a new country or society – but he has the skills, determination and resilience to achieve his goals. He has also found that although there are difficulties, other people can help. He hopes to complete his studies soon and to continue with his new career in electronic and digital engineering.


Take a moment to think about the following questions:

  • Was some of Mo’s learning unexpected?
  • Did Mo learn from bad experiences as well as good ones?
  • Did Mo learn things that will be useful for his future?
  • Is there a pattern or a recurring theme?

Example 2: Ying’s timeline with learning points

Look again at Ying’s timeline, which also has learning points added.

Graphic depicting Ying’s timeline with learning points added
Figure 2.6 Ying’s timeline with learning points added

Listen to what Ying says about what she has learned from experience.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: reflection_toolkit_ying_aud004.mp3
Skip transcript


I can continue my study. I can change my life. Before I spoke English, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t change my life. But now I’ve changed. In my heart I’m feeling a different person. I’m working at the moment. This job is quite good and my boss gives me quite a lot of training. Before, I thought it’s challenging. I came from China. I worked here, I studied to get a job, I have kids. Now I think, I can try that, I can do it.

End transcript
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Through reflecting on her experiences, Ying has used her skills and her personal qualities – e.g. ‘hard working’, ‘motivated’, ‘self-aware’ – to work towards the goals that she identified for herself.

Here are some key comments from Ying’s story:

  • didn’t want to work in a factory
  • wanted more out of life
  • English language skills
  • educational qualifications
  • study time consuming but worthwhile.

She now has:

  • grown in confidence
  • skills in English language and business, and used these to move into a better job that she enjoys
  • a better quality of life for herself and her family.

Can you identify what you have learned from looking at your own past experience?

What I’ve learned from my past experience

In the next activity we’d like you to think about your past experiences and try to identify what you have learned from them.

Activity 2.3 Learning from my experience

Timing: You should spend around 15 minutes on this activity.

Look at your own timeline again and think about what you have learned from your experience. Looking over the ups and downs, does it help you to recall how you felt at each point? What did you learn from each situation? Perhaps you found out more about your individual qualities and the type of work that suits you: a quality such as ‘hard working’, ‘good-humoured’ or ‘resilient’, perhaps? Or maybe you discovered that you need a change of direction?

Everyone’s experience will be different. There is no right or wrong answer.

We can see that learning is ongoing throughout our lives, through the ups and the downs.

Add your thoughts on this to your timeline in a different colour – you can find out how to do this on the help section. If you prefer not to use this online tool, or don’t have access to the internet, don’t worry – pen and paper will do just as well. You can use the sheet provided.


Go to Activity 2.3 in your Reflection Log. Once you have completed your activity, make sure you save the document again.

If you are working in a group, either online or face to face, you can share this with your group or save it and share it online, by saving the timeline as an image file and posting it to an online forum or via social media.

Looking backwards, looking forwards

In Session 1 you started to look at your own roles, skills and qualities. The key point here was that by reflecting on our experiences, we learn something from them that helps us to move on.

Session 2 has shown how drawing a timeline is useful in terms of plotting what happened and when, and how we feel about these experiences; what we’ve learned from them and how they’ve helped to shape us as a person.

You have been looking back at your experiences of life, or a period of your life. Mo’s timeline illustrated that there are ups and downs, and that other factors have influenced his timeline. He has control over some of these factors, such as choosing to stay in Glasgow or to return to London. Other factors, like the economic recession or availability of college places, are outside his control.

Activity 2.4 Influences and choices

Timing: You should spend around 15 minutes on this activity.

In the next session you will be looking forward, and exploring the factors that influence the choices you make about your future. To start you thinking about the factors that influence your life, have a look at Figure 2.7. This spider diagram is a graphic way of illustrating connections.

Spidergram graphic depicting the influences and choices in Mo’s life
Figure 2.7 Spider diagram of what the main factors in Mo’s life might look like

Thinking about the range of factors in your life that influence your choices about the future, try drawing a spider diagram for yourself on paper or at The website has instructions on how to use this free online tool. If you prefer not to use this, or don’t have access to the internet, don’t worry – pen and paper will do just as well. You can use the sheet provided.


Go to Activity 2.4 of your Reflection Log. Once you have completed the activity, make sure you save the document again.


The aim of this session was to get you thinking about your life and everything you have learned from your experience so far. By thinking about your past life you discover how your experiences, both good and bad, have helped you to grow and how much you have learned from them. Have these activities been useful? Did you learn anything new from this that you hadn’t noticed before?

You have now completed Session 2; you’ll explore these ideas further in Session 3.

If you would like further guidance on any issues these activities have raised for you, you can click here for a list of useful contacts  (including the Open University Careers Service).


To conclude this part of the course and consolidate your learning you may like to complete the second quiz.

Quiz 2 provides evidence that you are achieving the following learning outcomes:

  • a clearer understanding of the experiences that learners could have reflected on, including their roles, actions and decisions
  • the ability to use information technology (IT) to carry out simple activities in writing and communicating
  • the ability to use new ways of expressing ideas.

If you need a reminder about the quizzes and the criteria for getting a badge, visit How to complete the course quizzes.


Session 3: Identifying my skills, qualities and abilities


Reflecting on Transitions was developed by Lindsay Hewitt and Christine McConnell of The Open University in Scotland in collaboration with Bridges Programmes. The optional quizzes for the related digital course badges for learners and support workers, respectively, were developed by Julie Robson (The Open University) and Jonathan Sharp (Bridges Programmes). The course was edited by Lindsay Hewitt and Jennifer Nockles (The Open University).

We are hugely grateful to Bridges’ clients, Mo, Ying, Eric and Natalia, whose stories have informed the development of this toolkit and bring to life the activities within it. We hope you find something in their experiences that speaks to you as well.

Except for third party materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), 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 2.1: © Revensis/

Figure 2.4: ©

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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