How do I integrate my experience into my assignments?

Your perspective can be the most important aspect of an assignment as you present a particular position or argument. A critical engagement with resource material is required in most disciplines in order for you to demonstrate your ability to question, analyse, evaluate and express a considered opinion about a particular topic or proposition. You are expected to show that you can consider and assess a range of perspectives before presenting your own view. Confusion can occur in terms of how your life experience, from which your perspectives can be drawn, can be integrated into your assignments.

Using your life experience

Your life experience can be valuable to your university education but you need to think carefully about the best way to use it in an academic context. For instance, the time you had an argument with your neighbour about fixing the fence might seem like a good example to illustrate the principles of conflict theory but don't forget that most academic essays and reports are not written in the first person (that is, I, we, us) and that personal anecdotes are not generally accepted as sound evidence in an argument.

Personal experience can be woven into your writing, however, as an illustration of a point.

Example

This example, from a management essay, demonstrates how personal experience can be used to good effect.

Extract

However, this model is also not perfect. The change process is limited by the OD practitioner's expertise and management's perceptions. The change process also neglects the unique environmental factors faced by the situation. As an example, to the author's knowledge, a multi-national consulting firm once presented a proposal to a Chinese pharmaceutical company on how to achieve higher profit. The consultant team suggested an expenses cutting approach, which is widely used in the western world. In particular, the expenses of business meals needed to be trimmed down, as the figure seemed to be excessively high. Within one month after the company implementing the change, sales declined dramatically. The consultant did not realise the importance of the Chinese culture of networking, and that business meals form a very important part of that networking activity. In many cases, the process involved in the action research model becomes solution centred, as in the example, because some OD practitioners have their own favoured solutions that they tend to use all the time regardless of the problem (Waddell, 2000).

This paragraph points out a weakness in the action research model in the context of organisational development: that it also neglects the unique environmental factors faced by the situation. The student goes on to illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Notice how this has been framed here: As an example, to the author's knowledge, a multi-national consulting firm once…[continues]. The student has avoided using personal pronouns, which is the convention in this disciplinary area (management), and used an approach more acceptable here- as the author. Again, notice the framing of the example to support his point: the action research model becomes solution centred, as in the example. He did not use the phrase "as in my example". He then supports his argument by reference to a source (i.e. (Waddell, 2000))

Theory and practice

Many disciplines are interested in the intersection between theory and practice. You are often expected to assess the suitability – the strengths and weaknesses – of theory for describing what happens 'for real', to consider how well theory actually explains what it is supposed to explain.

How this critical evaluation is produced depends on disciplinary conventions. In Science and Psychology, for example, you would not draw on personal experience (for example, you wouldn't use "in this author's experience") to illustrate your points. You could provide an example to explain or illustrate something but this would need to have been derived from a documented source.

In some disciplines, however, you are explicitly asked to draw on your personal experience. Referred to as reflective discussion, your experience is framed in a particular way.

Reflective discussion

In the disciplines of Social Welfare, Education, Midwifery and Social Work, for example, you will be asked to draw on your experiences so that your lecturer can assess how much you have thought on and taken action on the materials and content of your course. Your lecturer expects you to have developed a rationale about your practice and to have reflected on how theory might inform practice (your experience) and how practice (your experience) might inform theory.

Example

In this case, the student has been asked to consider the intersection between theory, practice and personal values. The first paragraph is a description of her experience; the second is a reflection on this personal experience, linking it to the themes of her subject, and her personal values; the third shows the connection with the theory of social welfare practice.

Click the highlights for an explanation of the features of reflective discussion here

I grew up in a farming family culture where we lived close to my father's family. When I became older, I noticed that my grandfather held the position of 'head of the house' as he made all the decisions and controlled the household. My nan's role was homemaker, cook and cleaner. Grandpa expected the boys to work hard on the farm and put in long hours, while the girls were expected to help out in the house and carry out domestic chores….Females were not included in farming discussions and granddaughters were smiled at indulgently or patted on the head. This structure impressed on me the subtleties of patriarchal rules and the gender roles that it supported as 'normal'.

Thompson emphasises the point that "patriarchal ideology serves to maintain existing power relations between men and women by presenting gender roles as natural and inevitable" (2005:59). I still believe that patriarchy is a power play and control mechanism used by the dominant male and, in terms of gender relationships, it devalues the female perspective, pigeonholes women into submissive roles and conveys messages of gender hierarchy and female subordination (Cohen and Kennedy 2000:99). If my sisters and I were born male, we would still have experienced the patriarchal structure as described above in terms of expectations and constraints dictated by grandpa, however, we would have probably been valued more due to our maleness.

As a social welfare practitioner, if I was to work with a client/ family dominated by a patriarchal structure, it would be my professional duty to evaluate each situation on its own merits. Chenoweth and McAuliffe state that "in valuing humanity, workers are able to see individuals within their [own] social context – as a product of their…family upbringing…experiences…and cultural background" (2005:55). This means that not all cases are the same and that a 'one size fits all' approach will not suit all cases. I will invariably make internal comparisons with my own experience but, ultimately, the ideal of empowerment of the client would take priority.

Note how the student has carefully constructed and integrated these paragraphs to demonstrate her appreciation of the issues of importance in her subject area. In this case, the experience of gender and patriarchy has been the theme, which is well-supported by reference to the literature. The reflective discussion is then finalised by reference to the theory pertaining to her subject area.

Further guidance

Check Language and Learning Online for further information on your presence in the text. Work through specific tutorials and examples provided for the reflective learning process, reflective writing in Education and reflective writing in medical and health sciences.

What has worked for you? Share your reflections and examples in an email to iDEas@calt.monash.edu.au.