First published in Times Higher Education’s print edition, 13 January 2006

Helping students prepare personal development plans

Your enthusiasm could be key to engaging students in setting learning and career goals and identifying achievements they can build on.

Personal development planning may sound like something that tutors and lecturers can leave to students to address. It’s not the case – not least of all because students may not immediately see the need for it.

“As a rule, students aren't really enthused about PDP," admits Alan Maddocks, project manager for Loughborough University’s Rapid Project, which promotes PDP and develops web-based tools for implementing it. “You have to have strategies to engage them in the process.”

One of these is to be enthusiastic yourself. Maddocks’ team has found that despite the increasingly sophisticated electronic tools available to aid PDP, the enthusiasm of the tutor involved in using them remains critical.

Norman Jackson, who co-ordinated development and support of PDP policy for the Quality Assurance Agency, the Learning and Teaching Support Network and the Higher Education Academy, says PDP has to foster relationships and communication between tutors and students. “Teachers and students have to believe it’s going to work and have to work together to make sure it does.”

Jonathan Baldwin, academic developer at the Higher Education Academy’s Art, Design and Media Subject Centre at Brighton University, says you should not approach it as yet another bit of form-filling, but as something that can give structure to otherwise meandering tutorials and impromptu discussions.

“Sell PDP to students, show them how it works and why it’s worth doing,” he says. “Don't just tell them they’ve got to do it.”

Rob Ward, director of the Centre for Recording Achievement, says you have to keep the terminology and approach relevant. He suggests asking students what the difference is between a new year’s resolution and a PDP target or goal, getting them to identify the five most significant achievements they have made in the past 12 months, selecting the top two of these and identifying what evidence they have to support their choice.

He advises always adapting PDP to fit local circumstances, rather than using an institutional one-size-fits-all model. Lists of generic skills that invite students to tick boxes are pointless, he says.

Where PDP is embedded in the curriculum, he says you have to make sure that students recognise its wider value. Where it is done through tutorials, it is a good idea for staff and students to agree an agenda beforehand. “Tutorial meetings then become developmental rather than remedial. And good reference writing can become a lot easier,” says Ward.

According to Maddocks, it is essential to have a strategy that assumes that PDP is integral to what students are doing in the rest of their lives. This means it is helpful to integrate PDP into existing academic practice. “If it’s not assessed, then they think the university doesn’t place that much value on it,” he warns.

Baldwin suggests matching PDP to a unit, module or whole course’s learning outcomes to establish a clear link between what you say students should be learning and how they are assessed.

Stella Cottrell, who has written a book on the subject, says that linking PDP, the programme of study and the student’s future is especially important for younger students, who are less likely to have thought about careers.

Ward says this early intervention is also important where PDP is linked to off-campus learning, such as a year abroad.

Jackson says there are three elements to PDP: first, thinking about what is to be achieved and planning strategies to achieve it; second, acting on those strategies; and third, thinking about what has been done.

This reflective process should help students to understand what they have learnt, what skills they have developed, how they might apply them and how they can communicate all this to future employers.

Students should be writing reports on their tutorials and handing a copy to the tutor, rather than leaving staff to fill in forms days after the event, trying to remember what was said.

Baldwin also advises using technology to help with PDP. Rather than wading through dozens of PDP student journals, he suggests using a newsreader on your computer to subscribe to student feeds to keep up to date with what they are writing on blogs.

It is worth exploring the new tools available for implementing PDP, but Ward says it is also vital to recognise that plenty of implicit PDP has been going on for years. He advises identifying and building on existing practice rather than starting from scratch.

Finally, he suggests trying PDP for yourself – “to find out the real benefits and to gain street cred with your students”.

Further information

The Centre for Recording Achievement

The Rapid Project: Loughborough University

Skills for Success: The Personal Development Planning Handbook by Stella Cottrell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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