Non-linear Learning Progress

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Individuals cannot constantly use all of their resources and energy. They do not know what will happen tomorrow, but life experience can help to predict certain outcomes. In this sense learning is a constant process of ups and downs paired with lots of trial and error. Therefore, we have to change our linear understanding of learning in order to be better prepared for life’s many obstacles.

In our trainings, we sometimes ask participants to visualize their projects and their learning processes over the course of implementation in a (subjective) arc between an x and y axis. The horizontal axis describes time, the vertical axis describes the feeling associated with the project and its outcomes.

↑ feeling

We can see that project work is characterized by ups and downs. The linear parts are less interesting from an evaluating perspective. The most valuable sources for reflection are

  • The curve’s turning points
  • The ambiguous areas (confusions, sources of learning)

Individuals cannot offer their resources and energies constantly. They do not know what will happen tomorrow, and experience helps them to calculate probabilities. Furthermore, they cannot perform at 110% for a long term period even if they want to or think they can. Especially in volunteer projects, life is a wild combination of certainty and uncertainty involving personal friendships, studying, need for further learning, and dramatic life changes.

The confusions represented by the turning points in the curve confront us with uncertainty. We lose control and certainty but gain new experiences. Maybe this is a characteristic of experiential learning - success and failure balance each other. We bid farewell to a learning model that shows linear success stories.[1]


  1. N. Zimmermann: Mentoring Handbook - Providing Systemic Support for Mentees and Their Projects; Berlin 2012; MitOst; ISBN 978-3-944012-00-1

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:


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Mentoring Handbook

Providing Systemic Support for Mentees and Their Projects

MitOst editions, Berlin 2012, Online