The Educative Tool of Autobiography

How many times have you heard a student ask, “How does this relate to my life?” Autobiography and life writing can be a transformative tool in the classroom to help elicit answers to this question. After all, we all come to college with a different set of life experiences that make up the whole of who we understand ourselves to be. But how might we learn from these past experiences?

Karpiak (2000) conducted a fascinating qualitative study where she charged students in an adult education course to write their life story in five chapters. What happened? Students became highly interested, engaged, and many left the course changed.

By designing and writing the five chapters, students were able to identify patterns of experience in their lives and organize them metaphorically into themes. This allowed for students the ability to not only self-reflect but also engage in the process of critical reflection. Karpiak (2000) states:

The task of writing prompted students to recall events in their life, to relive the feelings and experiences of these events, and to try to make sense of these in relation to the whole of their life. They wrote about significant emotional events and their importance in shaping their life. One woman wrote about the death of her child and her process of coming to terms with this immense loss. Others acknowledged their accountability for certain happenings and for the choices made. Several identified the patterns of behaviour that burdened their lives, while others identified various addictions that controlled theirs. Whereas initially they may not have thought of their life as a series of historical events, my urging that they find a common thread to the events of their life together was likely helpful in searching out a possible larger meaning, a larger story in their life. (p. 38)

Thus, by looking at the emerging patterns in their chapters, the benefits began to appear. They began to see themselves as an actor in their own stories and some students were able to re-imagine the roles that they had once played. Still, the process of self-reflection allowed others to make peace with their pasts, heal, and accept themselves for the first time in their life. The author suggests that some students even began to envision new futures and possibilities.

Interestingly, Karpiak (2000) writes that “for many, writing about themselves in this way is their first opportunity to recollect and recount the signal events and turning points that led them to their study or their vocation. In this same fashion, courses related to leadership and administration, human services, or even biology could help students to uncover those signal events that shaped their vocational choices and scholarly perspectives.” (p. 47)

Karpiak (2000) offers guidelines for those educators interested in making use of autobiography in the classroom. She suggests:

The following may be useful for anyone wanting to utilize autobiographical writing with their students. (Students are generally asked to submit an outline of the chapters, for my review, before proceeding.)

  1. A publisher has given you the option of writing five chapters of your life story.
  2. Prepare an outline that includes the chapter titles; consider the title for your story.
  3. Write two pages for each chapter. Try to move beyond a simple chronology of events.
  4. Pay attention to any metaphor, thread, pattern, or story that emerges from the events of your life, like “crossing over” or “Still Me” (as in Christopher Reeve’s autobiography) (p. 47)

Perhaps, you ought to write your own autobiography. What does your story look like?

If you would like to read more, please see the link below.



Karpiak, I. (2000). Writing our life: Adult learning and teaching through autobiography. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education CJUCE, 26(1), 31-50.


  1. Socrates’ admonishment that the unexamined life is not worth living is a centuries-old comment on this transformative process, but it’s a bit harsh when one tries to apply it to college students who often haven’t been prompted to do this and don’t have practice or guidance in the process. As a class assignment, this is something that can really ramp up the critical reflection process, and that could pay big benefits in STLRized courses taken subsequently.

    • Nikki Seagraves uses an autobiography to get her students engaged in biology. At my former university, I always used autobiography’s to begin the introduction of disciplinary threshold concepts.

Leave a Reply