Teaching Reflective Skills and PDP to International Students: How effective is the use of PebblePad?
By: Dr Christina Meredith
The aim of this paper is to discuss a pilot study designed to enhance international postgraduate students’ reflective skills in their Personal Development Planning (PDP) as part of their master’s course. A cohort of students in a special module used an e-portfolio, PebblePad, to create an action plan and a webfolio as reflective assessments that recorded their learning achievements and career aspirations. The paper discusses some of the issues related to teaching PDP to international students, the author’s initial perceptions on the benefits of using PebblePad and examples from the anonymous feedback from students collected at the end of the module.
The following paper will introduce some of the issues involved in developing Personal Development Planning (PDP) skills and will then examine the findings from an investigation introducing PDP to a group of international master’s degree students in the Business School at Oxford Brookes University. The teaching of PDP is frequently embedded within other modules. In this case, however, it was taught as a distinct module. The e-portfolio system PebblePad was piloted in a series of workshops designed to explore whether its use would enhance the postgraduate students’ reflective skills for use in their PDP.
Jackson and Ward (2004) suggest that PDP is useful in the development of students’ meta-cognitive skills. For example, reflection may facilitate how students monitor their understanding of a topic, how they evaluate their progress and how they maintain motivation to complete a task. The student, therefore, becomes an active participant in critically evaluating their own learning.
Two further aims of using PebblePad were to encourage students to record a wide range of transferable skills that they could use in their future career development and to help them identify their strengths and future developmental needs.
It is often the case that graduates are unable to articulate clearly the transferable skills they have developed whilst studying for a degree. How can graduates demonstrate to prospective employers that they have ‘people skills’, such as the ability to work effectively as a member of a team? Yorke (2005) defines employability as ‘a set of skills, knowledge and personal attributes that make an individual more likely to secure and to be successful in their chosen occupation(s) to the benefits of themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’ (p. 8).
Rees, Forbes and Kubler (2006) list the skills that employers believe graduates should achieve on completing an undergraduate programme, including cognitive skills such as problem solving, transferable skills such as working in a team, personal capabilities and technical ability. These skills should be further developed and enhanced when undertaking a postgraduate degree. Postgraduate students should, for example, achieve a more systematic understanding their academic discipline, a critical awareness of current problems in the discipline, together with increased self-awareness and the ability to identify their own training needs. The link between academic knowledge and personal competencies is further illustrated by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) benchmarks for master’s in Business (2007), which includes the following statements as outcomes: ‘development of the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of business and management to complex issues, both systematically and creatively, to improve business and management practice’ (p. 2); and
‘enhancement of lifelong learning skills and personal development so as to be able to work with self-direction and originality and to contribute to business and society at large’ (p. 2).
Different Learning styles
Research suggests that students from different cultures exhibit different learning styles. For example, Asian students are often reported as being quiet and introverted (Harshbarger, Ross, Tafoya, & Via, 1986). Liu and Littlewood (1997) reported that Chinese students listed listening to the teacher as their most frequent activity in senior school. These claims are also supported by a study undertaken by Sato (1982), in which she compared the participation of Asian students in classroom interaction with that of non-Asian students. Sato found that Asian students took significantly fewer speaking turns than their non-Asian classmates (36.5% compared to 63.5%). These passive modes of learning are teacher-centred and, consequently, it is argued by Zhenhui (2001) that students receive knowledge rather than interpret it. This analysis of Asian students has become part of a stereotypical characterisation; however, Watkins and Biggs (1996) found that Chinese students could adapt their learning and adjust their learning style between memorising for understanding and surface learning for exams. It was found that, when compared with Australian students, Chinese students had higher cognitive goals and, contrary to the stereotype, did participate in tutorial discussions.
Students from other cultures are often accustomed to different teaching methods than those prevalent in the UK. For example, African students may have experienced didactic, teacher-centred learning (Kanu and Marr, 2007) and may encounter difficulty in adapting to student-focussed, discussion-based seminars. An interesting conference paper presented by Koshmanova in 2006 examined educational practices in the Ukraine. The Ukraine inherited the Soviet model of education, which focused on theoretical knowledge and placed less importance on the practical application of knowledge. In the Ukraine, it was normal for authoritarian university professors to impart information for students to memorise without any discussion or reflection. Koshmanova reported that the system is slowly changing; although many teachers adhere to the old system, innovative methods such as role play and reflection are being introduced.
Biggs (2003) proposed a theory for teaching international students based on three levels of teaching. Level 1 is teaching as assimilating, level 2 is teaching as accommodating, and level 3 is teaching as educating.
At level 1, students have to assimilate or adjust to the practices undertaken at the overseas institution. Biggs argues that lecturers can often assign stereotyped behaviours to international students depending on their country of origin. As discussed previously, this could include the view that students from some cultures and countries are passive, rote learners who do not think critically or participate and who find Western teaching methods difficult. Level 1 could be described as a deficit model of teaching because the focus is on the student’s lack of knowledge and skills (pp. 125-31).
Level 2, which Biggs calls accommodation is when the lecturer adapts their normal style of teaching, for example by being more serious with international students so as not to cause any offence.
Level 3, teaching as educating, focuses on what students do, rather than on what students are or what the lecturer does. Level 3 teaching is considered the most beneficial form of teaching and can happen only if the following conditions prevail: learning problems have been the fault of the teaching, not the student; similarities rather than differences between students are emphasized; and, finally, the whole teaching institution is aware of any particular needs of international students (pp. 138-139).
Personal Development Planning
It has been reported that students and staff do not always see the need for PDP. Beigel (2006), for example, investigated staff and student perceptions of PDP in the language department at the University of Chester and found that the majority of students reported doing the minimum amount of work to meet the requirement for their portfolio and did not use it again once the assignment had been completed. Over half of the students who failed modules had not submitted a portfolio, while another 14 per cent submitted portfolios but failed to gain a pass mark.
Lynch (2008) found that PDP and reflection are concepts with which many international students are not familiar. She also observed that many students were initially hesitant about sharing personal reflections. The teaching of PDP and reflective skills could be influenced by stereotyping of international students’ learning styles and ability to reflect.
Why use PebblePad?
Sunderland and Powell (2007) describe e-portfolios as purposeful collections of digital items. Depending on the purpose of the e-portfolio, the items can provide evidence of students’ work, ideas and reflections as well as feedback from peers, tutors, colleagues and friends.
PebblePad is a flexible e-portfolio system developed by Pebble Learning in collaboration with the University of Wolverhampton. The system allows students to create different online documents known as ‘assets’ to record their learning achievements, aspirations and social and cultural experiences. It also enables them to create an action plan. Students are able to upload photos, videos and even particular sounds together with ‘thoughts’, which are the ideas or reflections generated by the student about their asset. The assets are private but can be shared with selected students or tutors in order to receive feedback.
Figure 1: An example of a PebblePad page (webfolio can be seen on the menu on the left)
As Moon (2004) states, many individuals initially find reflective writing difficult. She suggests that for many learners reflection is successful in learning environments that offer guidance or incentives; for example, through a reflective portfolio.
Theoretically, at least, there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that reflection is a good skill for students to develop. Reflective practice is not a new idea – John Dewey (1933) introduced the idea into education. While health professionals have also been engaged in reflective practice for many years, other disciplines have been slower to adopt it. Despite an early enthusiasm for reflection, some health professionals have recently debated the difficulty of developing reflective practice and integrating theory with practice for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Mann, Gordon and MacLeod (2007) argue that there is a lack of evidence to support and inform curricular interventions.
Reflective diaries are commonly used to assess reflection. An overview of the literature by Epp (2008) on the use of reflective journals in undergraduate nursing programmes concluded that educators find it difficult to incorporate reflective processes into education and that there is little evidence to support the use of reflective journals in undergraduate nursing education as an appropriate tool to encourage reflection.
In total, 173 students from a range of master’s programmes including eMarketing, Business Accounting, Marketing and International Trade and Logistics undertook the PDP module. The students were predominately international (37 out of 39 in my module), representing many different nations including Kenya, China, Thailand, Greece, Brazil, Russia and Germany. There was considerable diversity in their English language skills and business experience.
Hofstede’s ‘cultural dimensions’ (2001) were used to initiate a discussion between students about their cultural backgrounds and the impact this might have on their learning experience at Brookes. In our first meeting several international students said that they did not understand what PDP was, or what the benefit would be. We placed an emphasis on the link between their personal objectives and their professional development during the programme.
PDP workshops were undertaken over two semesters. The first seven weeks of semester one focused on PDP skills, with the opportunity for students to reflect on the content and the relevance of each workshop. A further four workshops were held towards the end of the second semester for students to reflect on their learning experience and development. Each workshop usually involved students working in small groups, with different individuals making up each group every time. It was occasionally necessary to encourage students to work with those who did not come from their home country. Students who were very proficient at speaking English sometimes became impatient with those whose English skills were less developed. It was necessary to encourage all students to contribute to in-class discussions and not just those who had strong English language skills.
After each session, students were expected to write a short reflective review about the topic covered, evaluating what they had learnt and how the experience was personally relevant.
Other examples of activities that students have the opportunity to reflect upon included Belbin’s (2004) Team Inventory, an employability day, workshops on networking, career management, and presentation skills, ad well as extra-curricular activities relevant to their development such as English language classes. Personal skills included their personal effectiveness, flexibility, self-discipline and communication skills.
Students were encouraged to reflect on feedback, practising both giving constructive feedback and receiving feedback. Mory (2004) states that feedback can aid learning by providing new insights and understanding. Bourner (2003) adds that giving feedback to students on their use of reflective skills is very important for their development.
The students were also asked to evaluate a significant event or critical incident, which could in fact be something quite ordinary. Kolb (1984) and Gibbs (1988) were used to demonstrate how an incident can be depicted as a cycle as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Gibbs Reflective Cycle (1988)
Other models follow a similar premise, having students reflect on an event, analyse the experience and then try to modify their behaviour. In his learning cycle, Kolb (1984) identified four points: a concrete experience; observation and reflection; formulation of abstract concepts about the experience; and, finally, adoption of a refined understanding for future behaviour, which can be tested in new or similar situations.
Many of the students in the workshops commented that this was the first time they had ever considered in such depth their personal feelings and their strengths and weaknesses as areas for development.
The first assessments in the module was to create a formative action plan using PebblePad (valued at 20 per cent). Students were asked to consider their current situation and their ideal situation and then to use a SMART format to detail the steps they needed to take to progress from the current to the ideal situation through reflection. Students were also asked to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses using a SWOT analysis. In order to pass the module, students were expected to demonstrate that they could recognise their strengths and areas for development and reflect on their learning experience, including any feedback they received. The reflective component required that students evaluate and reflect upon workshop activities and other modules in the programme. Through reflection students established realistic goals in their action plan.
In general, the students that failed the assignment recognised their strengths and weaknesses, but in terms of reflection did little more than describe activities undertaken during the programme. The resulting action plan was vague, showing no relationship between the plan and reflection.
Many students requested additional instructions and explanation, asking to see a specimen action plan, ‘the subject is totally different from nearly all known courses. Therefore a sample for the first assignment (provided at the beginning of the course) would have led to an entirely different outcome.’ It was felt that providing examples of action plans (or webfolios for the second assignment) could stifle creativity and that the students might use the example as a template, perceiving it to be the ‘right’ way to successfully pass the assignment.
The second assignment was the summative webfolio including a revised action plan submitted towards the end of the course (valued at 80 per cent). A webfolio is an electronic version of a portfolio containing evidence of the students’ work presented on different ‘pages’ that can be edited and linked to other websites or assets. A webfolio might include an introductory page, a page about the student’s cultural background, one page for the action plan and so on. The webfolio gives the student the opportunity to tell the story of their personal journey during their time at Oxford Brookes.
To pass the webfolio assignment, students needed to include a reflective account of their professional and personal development during their learning experience. This included a demonstration of the ability to be self-critical, plans for future career development, and an account of involvement in extra-curricular opportunities. The presentation and creativity of the webfolio was also taken into account in assessment.
Feedback from Students
In this study the students undertaking the PDP workshops (173 in total) were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire and feedback form (see Appendix 1). In all, 49 (38 per cent) responded. The full numeric results are shown in Appendix 1. In the following section the results together with the students’ comments are discussed.
The students commented on the differences in the education systems in their home countries and the UK. One student from Eastern Europe said she was used to accepting given information and thus found it difficult to become a critical thinker, ‘I just memorise all of the materials and just write it in the examination.’ Nevertheless, she recognised the importance of building an argument and strived to comprehend and produce the required work. A similar difference was reported by a Japanese student. A few students anecdotally reported that their confidence had decreased upon coming to the UK due to the cultural difference in approaches to education.
On the whole, a British educational qualification appeared to be highly valued by the international students. They wanted to succeed even if the tasks required of them were unfamiliar and difficult. Of the students who responded, 75 per cent agreed that the content of the module was relevant and useful for postgraduate study, while 81 per cent agreed that workshops in the PebblePad module ‘were related to the learning and assessment activities of my MSc’.
Skyrme (2005) argued that international students who can recognise the limitations of their previous education are usually able to develop the skills they need to adapt to the way a university delivers its learning. Chamot (2001) and Gao (2003) suggested that students demonstrating meta-cognitive skills are characterised by their ability to assess a task in a new context and adjust to its demands – their strategy is dynamic and not passive. This would also be supported by constructivist learning theory (Vygotsky, 1978), in which learners actively construct personal meaning rather than passively accept others’ interpretations.
As noted in the methodology section, a number of the students had not previously come across PDP and needed to be convinced of its usefulness. Student comments included:
‘Most of the people don’t understand the value of PDP. But after receiving feedback and writing a then second action plan the importance is visible. I would recommend not leaving such a big gap between the two plans’
‘At the beginning I felt “It’s boring” but when I learned something from this module I found it very useful for my studying and future design’.
‘The [PDP] workshops were really helpful and contain[ed] good information.’
While many students initially found reflective writing difficult, comments from the feedback showed that undertaking reflective writing was a positive experience for some of the students. Of the respondents, 79 per cent said that PebblePad has helped them to reflect on their learning experiences.
‘This is the first module that I write reflection about personal development since I start university. I find it really interesting’.
‘I think writing some activities on PebblePad is very interesting, it’s like an electronic diary to remember everything, although sometimes I was too lazy to do it’.
One student suggested that reflective writing could be made more enjoyable by including a narrative about themselves:
‘I think the module could be augmented in some ways. Firstly after writing our assets regularly, we can write a short story about ourselves without any structure. Actually I would like to mean that I would prefer and enjoy that more when I am writing about myself’
Use of English language
Many Asian students undertaking the PDP workshop were able to reflect well and gained good marks for both assignments. Students’ ability to undertake reflective writing seemed to hinge on their English language skills.
‘I was really fascinated by the reflection part of the module. It was one of a kind. I must admit it though was scary at first. But with time the tutors concerned trained my eye not only to look back in history and ahead in the distant future but also the present in equal measure’.
Students whose English language skills were less developed reported that they found writing and editing online much easier than talking about topics in the workshops. The students were encouraged to ask questions using the virtual environment. This allowed the answer to be seen by other students who might have the same question. A few students reported that they felt ‘stupid’ asking questions in class and often did not understand aspects of an assignment due to language difficulties. Using the virtual environment to ask questions gave them the opportunity to think about and compose their questions.
Students had different prior experiences of using technology. Using PebblePad was new for all the students. Most students managed the technology, but some would have liked more help with the technical aspects. Comments included:
‘I suggest that future students be trained on uploading . . . I found the process difficult and had to source the services of the IT savvy students’
‘There was no provision for uploading big documents, I had a video about my taped interview, which I believe was a great asset but could not be uploaded. All in all it is an excellent module. The benefits gained from PDP surpass the above technicalities’.
Other comments reflected satisfaction with different aspects of the module:
‘I have enjoyed group work because I did not do group work in my previous education’.
‘The insights I have gained on the diversity of culture was invaluable.’
It would appear necessary to ensure there is enough time in the module to allow students to learn to use a system such as PebblePad, particularly students who are less confident with using technology.
Master’s courses are often intense. One of the issues raised by students was that they did not have the time to reflect on the content of their modules. It is possible that, as Beigel (2006) reported, many students may only be doing the minimum to meet the requirements to pass the assessments.
PDP and reflective writing aim to help students make sense of their learning experience in a way that could benefit both their personal and professional development. The aim of using PebblePad is to enhance the skills and employability of postgraduate students; this includes the development of their CV and the opportunity to record and reflect on their experiences and achievements in an innovative, creative manner.
Initially the international students appeared to lack awareness of the transferable skills they could potentially develop whilst undertaking their postgraduate education. It could be concluded that the relationship between their subjects of study, reflection and skill development needs to be taught explicitly. This is particularly relevant for international students because the teaching style in a UK higher education institution is, for many, very different to that in their home country. Reflective writing, as suggested by Moon (2004), appeared to be an unfamiliar and sometimes difficult concept, particularly for students who had never before had to consider areas such as their personal strengths and weaknesses. Reflection appeared to improve with practice. Feedback was an important component of that improvement, as discussed by Bourner (2003).
In order to make the link between the relevance of subjects being taught and PDP there needed to be a very clear relationship between the modules that the students were studying and PDP. It could be argued that this is easier when PDP is embedded in a module. In the workshops, however, students could be coached to develop an understanding of the relationship between the activities and other subject areas. This was particularly noticeable after the session on presentation skills. Engaging students with PDP seemed to be more successful when they could relate the activity being undertaken to their core academic subjects.
In order to use a system such as PebblePad there needs to be good staff development and training to support the tutors and to ensure student engagement with the material. Training may also prevent any cultural stereotyping from occurring. Tutors need to be confident about giving appropriate feedback, not only to mark the online coursework, but also to help students improve and develop their reflective writing skills.
Currently there is no systematic evaluation of PDP or PebblePad at the postgraduate level. This would seem to be of primary importance to gauge whether PDP, PebblePad and reflective writing is in fact beneficial in the long term for international postgraduate students. As global competition for postgraduate students may increase with the implementation of the Bologna Process, the university could attract students by offering a technology-based PDP programme to enhance student employability.
Views expressed are authors own.
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Dr Christina Meredith is a Chartered Psychologist, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and works as a freelance Business Psychologist. Christina is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Business School and has been teaching PDP using PebblePad since September 2008.
Dr Christina Meredith
Oxford Brookes University
End of Module Feedback
1. The content of this module is relevant and useful for postgraduate study
Strongly agree 35.4%
Agree in part 39.6%
Disagree in part 18.8%
Strongly disagree 6.3%
2. The module helped me plan for my future
Strongly agree 39.5%
Agree in part 32.6%
Disagree in part 25.6%
Strongly disagree 2.3%
3. PebblePad helped me reflect on my learning experience at Oxford Brookes
Strongly agree 33.3%
Agree in part 45.8%
Disagree in part 12.5%
Strongly disagree 6.3%
4. The workshops were related to the learning and assessment activities of my MSc
Strongly agree 27.1%
Agree in part 54.2%
Disagree in part 18.8%
Strongly disagree 0%
5. I learnt a lot from the experience of group working during the workshops
Strongly agree 39.6%
Agree in part 27.1%
Disagree in part 18.8%
Strongly disagree 14.6%
6. I learnt a lot through completing the assignments
Strongly agree 25.5%
Agree in part 51.1%
Disagree in part 14.9%
Strongly disagree 8.5%
7. The module was taught in a way that values diversity with respect to gender, ethnicity and culture.
Strongly agree 56.3%
Agree in part 37.5%
Disagree in part 4.2%
Strongly disagree 2.1%
8. The module tutors were helpful
Strongly agree 67.4%
Agree in part 23.3%
Disagree in part 4.7%
Strongly disagree 4.7%