How to learn from your past experiences

Discover how incorporating reflective practice in your everyday life can help you learn from previous experiences.

What you will learn

  • Identify what reflective practice is and the benefits of adopting it in everyday life
  • What the Gibbs Reflective Cycle is and how to use it
  • How to evaluate your experiences effectively and learn from them in future
Image Person Working On a Laptop At a Table

Throughout our lives we go through experiences in both our work and personal lives, whether these are positive or negative and it is undeniable that we can learn from them. However, many of us don’t take the time to reflect, consider what we could have improved or how can we apply our learnings to future endeavours. Incorporating reflective practice into our way of thinking can change the way we view our previous experiences and how we react to them.

What is reflective practice?

When reflecting on previous experiences, especially negative ones, we often feel deflated and upset when things haven’t gone as expected. Take care not to adopt a fixed mindset: one that holds us back from trying new things, challenging ourselves or having a positive outlook on our current situation. Changing a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, can encourage us to use reflective practice in action. With a growth mindset, you believe you can continually develop your abilities through hard work and dedication. By incorporating reflective practice, you can learn from your current situation and move on positively through work and personal life.

Reflective practice is essentially thinking about what you have done. It is an essential part of developing new skills, making a conscious effort to think about events, and gaining insights into them.

How to make reflection work for me

Reflective practice increases self-awareness, a key component of emotional intelligence, and helps you develop a better understanding of others as well as yourself. It can also help you to develop creative thinking skills and encourages active engagement in work processes. By developing a regular habit of reflective practice, you will have more ability to tackle challenges, make decisions, manage your feelings, become more productive and cope with stress levels.

Think about a situation where you made a good decision and handled well in either your job or at home. What actions did you take? Did you work with anyone directly? Why was it a good decision? By beginning reflective practice on a positive note, you can consider your choices and put them into action in the future. Enhancing your ability to reflect and learn from your previous experiences can encourage you to explore your options and find solutions to problems. Noting what happened and reflecting on your experience can help you consider what you have learned and what you could or should have done differently. It’s not just about changing; reflective practice can also highlight when you’ve done something well.

Putting reflective practice in action

A circular diagram showing the 6 stages of Gibbs' Reflective Cycle Reflecting on our past experiences helps us to acknowledge our role in a situation, no matter what stage you’re at in your education or work. You may have just left college and have begun to look for work, you may be returning to work after taking some time to care for children or family, you could be attending regular interviews or even reflecting on your experiences in work: these are all situations you can learn from. Using the Gibbs Reflective Cycle can be particularly useful when putting reflective practice in action.


Example situation 

You have a job interview tomorrow and decide to travel into town in the morning so you can go to a coffee shop nearby to look over your notes. However, you sleep in on the day and have to rush to the interview without looking over your notes. During the interview, you did not know a great deal about the company and could not answer some questions.

Feelings: This stage in the cycle actively encourages you to consider your feelings during the experience and how they may have impacted the experience. You may consider:

  • What did you feel before this situation took place?
  • What did you feel while this situation took place?
  • What do you think other people felt during this situation?
  • What did you feel after the situation?
  • What do you think other people feel about the situation now?

The day before the interview you were excited but nervous for the interview, you felt tired after a long day at your current job so decided to go to bed early rather than prepare the night before. When you were rushing to the interview you felt panicked about the lack of time and frustrated you slept through your alarm. During the interview, you lacked confidence when asked about the company but were satisfied with your overall performance.

Evaluation: Now you can evaluate objectively what worked and what didn’t in the situation. Consider the positives and negatives, what did you do to contribute to the situation?

You were able to give good insights into the role and put yourself forward positively. However, you were not organised and did not set enough time to look over your notes and research the company.

Analysis: This is where you can dig deeper into what happened, why did things go/not go well?

You were not able to dedicate enough time to the interview because you were working long shifts prior to the day. On reflection, you could have spent more time in the days leading up to the interview to conduct your research, so you wouldn’t need to dedicate the day of the interview to do the bulk of the work. In doing this, you would have felt more confident in your ability and left the interview feeling positive.

Conclusions: At this stage you should summarise your learnings and note what changes you could action to improve the outcome in future. Consider what you have learned from the experience, what skills could you develop from this and what else you could have done to make this a better outcome.

You learned that your time management and organisation could be better in both work and life situations. You should create a plan of action before tackling a big event like a job interview and not leave things to the last minute.

Action Plan: Now, you should create an actionable plan for what you would do differently in a similar situation. Consider what you will do differently, how you will develop the skills to do this and how you will commit to taking this action?

When you applied for the job could have taken notes of for the role. This would have helped you to build up a base level knowledge and understanding of the job and business before the interview. You should begin to plan out your days, creating to do lists and allocate time to do each task to become more organised and liable for everyday tasks.

The Gibbs Reflective Cycle is a tool that may work for you to begin your reflective practice. Depending on your situation, you can use it to help process how you react to your experiences, so you can be more confident in your decisions and how you react to them in future.

There is no wrong path in life, your experiences shape where you go and how you move on personally and within your career. Reflective practice is one of the easiest things to drop when the pressure is on, yet it’s one of the things that you can least afford to drop, especially under those circumstances. Time spent on reflective practice will ensure that you are focusing on the things that really matter and you will continue to adapt to new challenges.


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