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Published Papers


Birren, J. E. & Birren, B. A (1996). Autobiography: Exploring the Self and Encouraging    Development. In J. E. Birren, G. M Kenyon, J. E. Ruth, J. J. F. Schroots, & T. Svensson (Eds.). Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development (Chapter 16, pp. 283-  299). New York: Springer Publisher Co.


“There are many uses of autobiography: a) as a source of psychological and social science research material, b) as a source of historical material for family and community, c) as a means of promoting personal insight, and d) as preparation for changes in life.  The authors have been working with guided autobiography for over 15 years and have at time been involved with all of the uses listed above.”


Birren, J. E. & Svensson, C.  (2009). Anticipated and Actual Evaluation of the Components of Guided Autobiography.  Paper presented at the Life in the Past Lane: Reflections in Review Mirror. Symposium, 62ndAnnual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Atlanta, Georgia



Participants in Guided Autobiography (GAB) classes come in with their own preconceived ideas about the class, e.g. how it will be structured and what they will be expected to do.  Most come in with the simple goal:  to write their life story.  However GAB builds on a process that emphasizes small group work, writing on increasingly sensitive themes, and personal sharing of one’s writing.  The themes, elements, and processes of GAB were assessed pre- and posttest.  Significant changes occurred in all areas. For instance, the greatest change was seen in the usefulness of reading their writing in the small group, as well as active participation in the group.  Qualitative comments from the participants and reflections on GAB by the organizers are discussed to further clarify the power of the GAB process.


Collins, J. B. & Thornton, J. E. (November, 2007). Learning and Meaning-Making in Guided Autobiography. Poster presented at the 2007 Conference for the International Institute of Reminiscence and Life-Review. San Francisco, CA.



As part of our ongoing series of Guided Autobiography workshops, facilitators have recently added a research component which asks participants to write briefly on two topics regarding their GAB activities. At the final workshop session, participants submit individual written responses to two questions: “What am I learning in this guided autobiography workshop?” and “Where do I go from here?”  This poster presentation summarizes the data and analysis of 52 of these scripts (average length 190 words) which have been thematically and qualitatively analyzed to reveal some 18 surface themes and a half-dozen meta-themes that characterize the learning, meaning, purpose and wisdom which participants have distilled from their GAB experiences.  Graphical analysis links gender, age, and workshop location to the scripts’ codes, surface themes and meta-themes.


de Vries, B., Birren, J. E. & Deutchman, D. E. (Jan. 1990). Adult Development Through Guided Autobiography: The Family Context.  Family Relations, Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, #39, pp. 3-7



The aging of our society poses special concerns for families as members are faced with new roles and new forms of interdependency. Life review is a vital mechanism for educating families about shifting roles and increasing older adults’ sense of self-efficacy. Family life educators can play and important roles in helping families adapt to new demands and changing circumstances, as facilitators of the life review process. Guided Autobiography is a process developed specially for this purpose. It incorporates the use of sensitizing questions, pretested themes, and the group process to encourage life review in an atmosphere of mutual support and fruitful reflection.


de Vries, B., Blando, J. A., Southard, P. & Bubeck, C. (2001). Times of our lives. In G. Kenyon, P. Clark & B. de Vries (Eds.), Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 137-158). New York: Springer Publishing Co.


[to be added]


Kenyon, G.M. & Randall, W.L. (1997). Restorying our lives: Personal growth through autobiographical reflections.  Westport, Conn: Praeger


[to be added]


Reker, G. T., Birren, J. E. & Svensson, C.  (2014).  Self-Aspect Reconstruction through Guided Autobiography: Exploring Underlying Processes, International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 1-15



This research explores possible reconstruction processes involving the self-system (actual, ideal, and social image selves) of participants taking part in Guided Autobiography (GAB). Ten young and eleven older adults met each week for 12 weeks. Data were collected at pretest, mid-test, and post-test. Three indicators of structural change were measured and analyzed: self-aspect congruence, self-aspect integration, and self-aspect consistency. For all participants, results revealed a significant increase over time in self-aspect congruence (actual/ideal and actual/social image) and self-aspect integration (actual self only), while self-aspect consistency remained stable and moderate. Compared to younger adults, older adults showed significantly greater congruence in actual/ideal and actual/social image self aspects following the GAB experience. Moreover, greater self-aspect congruence was associated with positive evaluations of others and life at present. Our findings provide us with a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms that operate when individuals, particularly older participants, report having grown personally through GAB.


Thornton, J. E. (2003). Life-span Learning: A Developmental Perspective. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 57: 1, pp. 55-76.



The paper discusses learning as embedded processes of development and aging, and as social activity over the life course. The concept of life-span learning is proposed and outlined to discuss these processes as aspects of and propositions in life-span development and aging theory. Life-span learning processes arise and continuously develop in a dynamically complex body, brain, and the mind they support as essential features of development and aging over the life course. Life-span learning processes are established by evolutionary adaptive mechanisms, enriched by challenging environments, and continuously developed in supportive social structures. These ideas are derived from evolutionary biology and psychology, the cognitive sciences, life-span development and aging research, and adult development and learning studies. It is argued that life-span learning activities that challenge the body-mind-brain nexus are indispensable to optimize individual development and aging. Three global intervention and their strategies are discussed that enhance life-span learning: Learning to Learn, Learning for Growth, and Learning for Well-being.


Thornton, J. E. (2003). The Developmental Exchange: What’s in It for me? Paper presented at the GSA Symposium: Guided Exploring Mature Lives: Autobiography Steps Toward Wisdom, November 21, 2003



In guided autobiography method two major activities structure a session: participants come together in an initial large group activity and then separate into small groups of five or six. A “developmental exchange” – a core feature of guided autobiography activities – emerges in these small discussion groups. The developmental exchange arises as participants share and explore life stories and events of autobiographical memories, reflecting on them, and retelling or re-storying them. In the small group, what emerges are dynamic and complex “learning” and “experiencing” activities in a social- cultural context that cannot easily be parceled into well bounded concepts, constructs or categories. These issues are explored in my paper “Life-span Learning: A Developmental Perspective” (Thornton, 2003).


Thornton, J. E. (2008).  The Guided Autobiography Method: A Learning Experience.  The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 66:2, pp 155-173



This paper discusses the proposition that learning is an unexplored feature of the guided autobiography method and its developmental exchange. Learning, conceptualized and explored as embedded and embodied processes, is essential in narrative activities of the guided autobiography method leading to psychosocial development and growth in dynamic, temporary social groups. The paper is organized in four sections and summary. The first section provides a brief overview of the guided autobiography method describing the interplay of learning and experiencing in temporary social groups. The second section offers a limited review on learning and experiencing as processes that are essential for development, growth, and change. The third section reviews the small group activities and the emergence of the “developmental exchange” in the guided autobiography method. Two theoretical constructs provide a conceptual foundation for the developmental exchange:  a counterpart theory of aging as development and collaborative-situated group learning theory. The summary recaps the main ideas and issues that shape the guided autobiography method as learning and social experience using the theme, “Where to go from here.”


Thornton, J. E. & Collins, J. B. (2007). The Developmental Exchange as Reflected in Learning Outcomes of Guided Autobiography. Paper presented at the Transformative Learning Conference, Transformative Learning: Issues of Difference and Diversity, Oct. 24-27, 2007, Albuquerque, New Mexico.



Guided autobiography can activate transformative influences in participants’ retrospection of their lives. Through the dynamics of developmental exchanges and sharing of experiences, memories and emotions, GAB participants learn to re-experience life events and understand their lives from new perspectives. Guided autobiography (GAB) activities are structured to promote three learning objectives – didactic knowledge exchanges, open group social-cultural exchanges, and small focused discussion groups involving self-other exchanges. Evidence that these objectives occur is well reported in the literature.  What has been missing from the wider discourse are reports from participants themselves recounting “What am I learning” as a result of the GAB activities, interpersonal exchanges and reflective exercises.  This paper catalogs participants’ own reports of meaningful learning and introduces an analysis of the processes that promote and sustain such learning beyond the schedule and structure of the GAB workshops themselves.


Thornton, J. E. & Collins, J. B. (2010). Adult Learning and Meaning Making in Community-based Guided Autobiography workshops. Commissioned Report, Canadian Council on Learning. 




Older adults are clear on the impact and value of their learning experiences in guided autobiography workshops. They distinguish between learning processes and outcomes as well as differentiating between learning which anticipates expansion into new interests from learning that consolidates prior experiences. Participant reports identify nineteen topics which focus on three major domains: learning about themselves; learning exchanges with others when sharing their life stories’ and learning which derives from workshop structures and activities.  Their reports provide a rich and vital look into the learning potentials of older adults and how they acquire meaning and purpose in community based program.


I want to talk about learning. … I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that is not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need” “Ah, here it is! Now I am grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!” (Carl Rogers, 1983: 18-19).   [available – in the book]


 Thornton, J. E., Collins, J. B., Birren, J. E. & Svensson, C.  (2011). Guided Autobiography’s Developmental Exchange: What’s In It For Me? The International Journal Of Aging And Human Development, 73:3, Pp. 227-51.



The developmental exchange is a central feature of social development, interpersonal dynamics, situated learning, and personal transformation. It is the enabling process in Guided Autobiography (GAB) settings that promotes the achievement of personal goals and group accomplishments. Nevertheless, these exchanges are embedded in the GAB structures of time, events, participants, themes, perspectives, medium, and quest for relevance. Ongoing research studies are gradually clarifying the actual, ideal, and social image of self as well as the processes, outcomes and specific learning topics achieved during the GAB experience as they unfold through the listening, participating and diversifying structures of the developmental exchange. [available – in the book]

Other Guided Autobiography Websites


Guided Autobiography Instructors

Cheryl Svensson :

Wendy Bancroft :


Guided Autobiography, Foley Center for the Study of Lives, North Western University

Dr. D. P. McAdams:

International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review, University of Wisconsin – Superior


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