Why Personal Development Planning (PDP) Matters

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by Shola Adenekan

At a recent meeting with students from various departments at a Midlands-based university, a senior lecturer wanted to know if the students had been using used Personal Development Planning (PDP). None had, and only one student had even heard of PDP.

This ignorance is indicative of the way many British institutions have approached the development and use of PDP. Additionally, most lecturers place little value on PDP as a formal process or activity.

For many institutions and lecturers, PDP may sound like something that concerns only students, but experts say that if universities are serious about student employability upon graduation PDP should be a core part of the university experience.

Student engagement

Alan Maddocks, who helped develop PDP at the University of Loughborough, says students are unlikely to engage formally in the PDP process unless there is a demonstrable level of institutional commitment. Tutors, he believes, must be seen to be enthusiastic about the concept.

"Students most readily engage where PDP is seen as being integral to the learning and assessment experience," he says. "This requires lecturers and faculties to be creative in how they introduce the notion of PDP, and more importantly integrate it within the degree courses that students follow. Any attempt to have it as a 'bolt-on' activity is likely to lead to very little student engagement."

Benefits to students and tutors

The Higher Education Academy (HEA), the agency which supports the sector across the four nations of the UK, defines PDP as a structured and supported process undertaken by a student to reflect upon their own learning, performance, and achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career management.

A senior adviser at the HEA, Steve Outram, says the idea of PDP first emerged from the National Committee of Inquiry in Higher Education of 1997, which recommended that institutions should develop a progress file for each student that consisted of a transcript recording student achievement, and a means by which students could monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development.

"PDP represents a world-first and has influenced developments in the higher education policy and practice elsewhere," he says. "And when developed electronically, the approach becomes similar to other initiatives across the world, and also connects well to processes of appraisal and continuing professional development at work, thus reinforcing the agenda of lifelong learning."

Mr Outram says that effective PDP improves the capacity of students to review, plan and take responsibility for their own learning, and to understand how they learn.

"The use of PDP can hold many benefits for academic staff, including providing a structure which lecturers can use to support their discussions with individual students on their progress," he says. “This can lead to an enhanced learning experience. Its continued use can also feed into an institution's learning and teaching strategy."

Electronic applications

Much PDP practice is now being delivered electronically. A 2007 study commissioned by the HEA reported that 83 percent of respondents said that their PDP process was supported by an electronic tool, usually an e-portfolio. In addition, there are many PDP processes that use social networking and collaborative working between students, allowing students to upload work for tutors, upload peer comments and feedback, and providing an electronic context where issues of concern can be discussed.

The University of Surrey is one of the pioneering institutions in terms of electronic application of PDP, having encouraged the use of Wikis and allied technologies. Norman Jackson who co-ordinated PDP for the university, in addition to the developing and supporting of PDP policy for the Quality Assurance Agency, the Learning and Teaching Support Network and the Higher Education Academy, sees PDP as a way of encouraging students to think and act in the way that professionals do in the work environment.

"When they have to assess a situation, decide what to do, do it and monitor the effects of what they do and adjusting where necessary," he says. "PDP therefore links effective learning in formal study with what professionals do when learning is a by-product of work. By encouraging students to use these ways of thinking and being, we are preparing them for the professional work environment."

What should go into PDP

There are certain core things lecturers and faculties should consider with regards to PDP. Experts suggest institutions should first look at the purpose for developing PDP.

"We need to ask ’what are the goals for your PDP, beyond encouraging students to engage in the process,'" says Prof Jackson. "This will reflect the context you've created."

Prof Jackson stresses the importance of choosing an appropriate context and points out that the more experimental the better. He suggests doing such things as projects, field studies, group enquiries and collaborative pieces of work. Rich experiences, he says, will contain more things for the students to think about and reflect on. He also believes that PDP should be meaningful and should contain materials which students can connect to the world outside of the university.


Prof Jackson also says that students need to be guided on the type of reflections the tutor is expecting, be it in the form of an ongoing diary, blog, a synthesis account, a digital story or perhaps two or three concept maps that show changes in understanding through a process.

He points out that at the University of Surrey, they now use simple tools that can help students focus on what the teacher feels is important.

"For example, we have a Learning Through Work Certificate and we expect students to keep a weekly blog," he says. "We encourage students to think about such things as their organisation and business, problem-working, team-working, communication issues and their own performance. By drawing attention to these things students are more likely to make their tacit understanding more explicit."

Other elements Prof Jackson believes are important include giving students opportunities to discuss their own reflections, and recognition from the tutor of the amount of effort that the students have put into reflecting and drawing out their own greater awareness.

Monitoring effectiveness

Since many tutors will argue that they have neither the time nor resources to monitor what is effectively a private matter for the student, Alan Maddocks believes that the monitoring of PDP effectiveness should depend on a creative integration of its activities into the existing course and assessment process.

"This enables some degree of monitoring to take place through assessment," he says. "Ideally, some assessment exercise per semester should include some elements of PDP activity."

Prof Jackson thinks students themselves can be great at helping their colleagues to engage in PDP.

"We are currently recruiting and training students who have been through and gained our Learning through Work Certificate to become mentors on the scheme. Through this role they will help others to engage with writing their weekly reflective blogs drawing on their own blogs to illustrate the process and sharing their experiences. Teachers then become the overall monitors of how well the process is working and also guides to the student peer mentors, rather than doing everything themselves," he says.

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