Why reflect on experiences?
Experiences as a source of employability development
Employers expect graduates to have degree knowledge and capabilities as well as the personal qualities that guide workplace performance. These qualities are most effectively developed through experience, as experiencing something is a more active process than having information given to you.
This is particularly the case when it comes to employability development, as the intangible attributes that are valued in the workplace are often not easily ‘learned from a textbook’. They are best developed by experiencing new things and facing challenges where you need to draw on personal qualities to deal with a particular situation and to achieve a positive outcome.
This concept is called experiential learning and is the process of reviewing your engagement with an experience to consider and understand the impact of your actions, determining if improvements could be made, and applying these improvements to similar situations in the future (Kolb 1984).
This means actively participating in a range of activities where you need to apply certain behaviours or develop particular capabilities as part of the experiences associated with those activities.
But remember that experience alone is not enough – you need to know what you have learned from a situation and to do this you need to reflect on it.
By engaging in self-reflection you are considering the transformation that has taken place as part of your experiences and what you are able to do now (or just more effectively perhaps) as a result. This is about self-efficacy and an understanding of yourself and the way you approach situations.
This is particularly important for employability development as before you can think about listing your skills and attributes on a resume, you need to go through a process of self-awareness through reflection to understand what it is that you can do and how you might contribute through work.
Take confidence or resilience as examples of qualities that are valuable in the workplace. You could learn in a workshop or lecture what these qualities mean, but until you are in situations where you need to draw on them, you are not really developing them. And similarly, as you develop them, you need to be in situations where you are applying them to further enhance your development.
Take a situation where your workmate at your part-time job doesn’t do their share of work and this frustrates you.
- Action/activity: You have a heated exchange with your workmate.
- Review to develop understanding: Your action results in both of you receiving a reprimand from your manager.
- Identify positives or negatives: The negatives are easily identifiable in this situation. You recognise that this action did not give you the outcome you were looking for, therefore you consider how else you could have handled the situation.
- Select and apply improvements: You come up with another way to talk to your workmate if the situation arises again.
If you encounter this problem again, you apply the new strategy and if this results in a more favourable outcome, you know you can continue with confidence, that is, you will use the strategy in the future.
If again you fail to achieve a positive outcome, you go through the cycle again, until you come up with a strategy that DOES WORK
While some people are naturally self-reflective, many of us find that self-reflection does not come automatically, and is something that we have to consciously tell ourselves to do, and need to practice. The good news is that once you can identify what to reflect on, and have a structure to help you through the process you can easily self-reflect on almost any experience.
Eventually this process will become much more natural and you will find that you are becoming a ‘reflective practitioner’ – that is, reflecting almost automatically on the situations that you find yourself in.