Personal Developmental Planning at Oxford Brookes – Still Developing?


Keith Cooper


The historical background to Personal Development Planning (PDP) in the context of Progress Files is briefly outlined, together with an acknowledgement of the way in which the recommendations of the Burgess Review may take it forward in relation to new ways of measuring and recording student achievement. There is consideration of a range of difficulties and questions associated with the introduction of PDP into HEIs. Implementing PDP at Oxford Brookes University and what it can achieve is examined against the background of some of these difficulties and questions. The conclusion is that the limited focus and ambitions of the first stage of the implementation of PDP at Oxford Brookes can provide a sufficient platform for worthwhile work to be done with undergraduates focussing on preparation for and transition to employment whilst further research is undertaken in the sector into some of the more problematical aspects of PDP.


Clegg (2004) and East (2005) have summarised and briefly examined the range of ‘policy, macro-socio-political and pedagogic debates’ that have influenced the ideas associated with Progress Files and Personal Development Planning (PDP) together with some of the problematical aspects of introducing them in HEIs. Gough et al., (2003) and Ward et al., (2005) have looked, respectively, at the evidence for the impact of PDP on students’ academic performance and highlighted the need for more rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of PDP.

This brief paper does not seek to give a detailed history of the development of thinking and practice in relation to PDP; instead, it seeks to present some thoughts about how selected elements of PDP might be taken forward at Oxford Brookes (and perhaps other HEIs) whilst the sector awaits the outcome of further investigation of some of the more problematical aspects of pedagogy associated with PDP. However, it may be necessary to briefly remind readers of key points in the history of PDP.

The first impetus came from recommendation 20 of the National Inquiry into Higher Education [The Dearing Report] (NCIHE1997) which stated the following:

We recommend that institutions of higher education, over the medium term, develop a Progress File. The File should consist of two elements

  • a transcript recording student achievement which should follow a common format devised by institutions collectively through their representative bodies
  • a means by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development

Some observers agree, with justification, that the wording of this recommendation created an unhelpful expectation (or at least an association of ideas) that what was being sought primarily was the compilation of a portfolio of evidence by students that could be physically presented to employers. It is possible that the thinking behind the recommendation originally included this perception, but those concerned with translating the recommendation into sector policy have emphasised that greater importance should be placed on the process of Personal Development Planning rather than the production of a file of evidence. This process should include encouraging students to critically reflect, amongst other things, on how and in what ways they are developing as learners and tyro-professionals; on how they learn and how they can go on to learn throughout their lives; and on the relationship between their future working lives and the skills they are developing.

The policy for implementation was developed between 2000 and 2001 and expressed in two documents (Universities UK, 2000 and Quality Assurance Agency, 2001). Key elements are the production of a Transcript (something that Oxford Brookes had already developed), an individual student’s personal record of learning and achievements, progress reviews and plans that are used to clarify personal goals and can provide a resource from which material is selected to produce personal statements (e.g., CVs, etc.) for employers, admissions tutors and others (emphasis added); and structured and supported processes to develop the capacity of individuals to reflect on their own learning and achievement and to plan for their own personal, educational and career development. The term Personal Development Planning is used to denote this process. The AY 2005/06 was the agreed date by which all students (postgraduate as well as undergraduate) should have access to the opportunity to take part in PDP if they wish. East (2005) notes

there is a distinct likelihood that some HEIs will be tempted merely to put in place a ‘symbolic’ system of progress files which is not widely used and, as a result, does not play a significant role in the learning experience of most students. This could, nevertheless, be presented to the QAA, in its auditing capacity, and to other external stakeholders, as the institution meeting the requirements upon it.

This point will be taken up later with reference to implementation of PDP at Oxford Brookes.

The concept has been taken forward in the report ‘Measuring and recording student achievement, the Report of the Scoping Group chaired by Professor Robert Burgess’. The report states,

Evidence. . .indicate[s] that the UK higher education sector often leads the way in terms of identifying and communicating student achievement. . .For example, following the Dearing recommendation, Progress Files, containing both a transcript of formal learning and achievement, and more personal records evidencing the wider achievement of individuals, have already been agreed by the sector through its representative bodies. . .Personal Development Planning will underpin the Progress File and improve students’ capacities to communicate information about their learning and is now being implemented. (Universities UK/SCoP, 2004).

It goes on, ‘PDP offers a way of engaging students in representing their own learning, in creating customised information about their learning and achievement and communicating this information to different audiences with different needs and interests. The new capacities to provide information about learning developed through PDP represents added value on both the transcript and Diploma supplement models of information giving’ (Universities UK/SCoP, 2004). This assessment of the evidence led the Scoping Group to make its ‘Recommendation 6: higher education institutions should continue to implement PDP with the guidelines developed by the Progress File Implementation Group. There should continue to be evaluation of the impact of learning and the representation of learning and achievement of different forms of PDP.’

This would suggest that PDP may still be seen not only as a process that encourages undergraduates to look at their learning and development in particular ways but also as a product that offers another model of information giving about learning.

Problems and difficulties associated with the implementation of PDP

Let us turn from these key points of PDP’s history to consider those things that are seen as problematical with respect to the implementation of PDP in the higher education sector. The list that follows draws heavily on the work of Clegg (2004), East (2005) and Ward et al., (2005) as well as issues identified during the extended discussion of PDP in Learning and Teaching Committee at Oxford Brookes; it includes areas that are difficult or complex in terms of pedagogy as well as matters that are related to resources and perception:

Complexity and Diversity of ideas underpinning PDP

Referring to the series ‘Guides to Busy Academics’ on PDP, produced by the LTSN Generic Centre, Clegg (2004) writes,

Guide 1 (LTSN Generic Centre, 2002), for example, emphasises the importance of improving students’ ‘understanding of how they are learning, of offering students an opportunity to develop a holistic overview of their course, of enabling students to reflect critically and become more independent, as well as encouraging students to consider actively their academic, extracurricular and career opportunities’. . .[A]nother [Guide] argues that ‘students will be better equipped to convince employers that they are employable and they should be. . .more aware of what they need to do to stay employed’. . .In short there is a plethora of terminology, purposes, contexts and processes being captured underneath the deceptively simple idea of a Progress File.

Limited research on the effectiveness of PDP

Gough et al., (2003) undertook a review of the literature. The authors concluded that PDP has positive effects on student learning, student attainment and approaches to learning. Nonetheless, a closer examination of the review and its presentation may lead some readers to be surprised by the confidence of this conclusion. Clegg (2004) notes ‘Gough, in a meticulously argued presentation of the review at its launch, concluded that it was not possible to know ‘how or why’ PDP was producing those effects reported. . .Thus, despite the procedural rigour of the review process the review tells us very little that is useful to practitioners.’ Peters (2005) has reminded practitioners that only 4 studies examined in this review of more than 200 studies support the claim that participation in PDP improves students’ learning and academic achievement.

Reflection ‘as enshrined in PDP. . .is now expected to form part of every student’s analytical learning-to-learn armoury’ (Clegg, 2004) although it may be a problematical concept

The nature of the process may be inadequately conceptualised and understood whilst some students may be ‘reflection averse or simply not able to express themselves in this way’ (Clegg, 2004). Clegg also draws attention to the work of Claxton (1998) and Atkinson and Claxton (2000) who suggest that ‘attempts at conscious reflection on the self may be deeply flawed or even in certain contexts act as a blockage to learning’ (2004). Clegg is concerned that ‘the sorts of reflection or review that might be produced [in the context of PDP] are likely to be formulaic simulacra of reflection unless we have a good understanding of when, how and where reflection might be useful and, of course, the corollary, when, where and how it might not’.

Resourcing PDP ‘would appear to be the major issue in respect of successfully implementing a system’ (East, 2005)

This certainly featured prominently in discussions of PDP at Oxford Brookes’ Learning and Teaching Committee. East articulates the views of many teaching staff who are being asked to support PDP, most often in their role as Personal Tutors or an equivalent role: ‘Negative attitudes [to PDP] are likely to increase if staff involvement in this process is seen as imposing an additional burden on busy academics who, in the last decade or so, have had to deal, inter alia, with the responsibilities attendant on the move to a system of mass higher education’ (East, 2005). And as Ross (2001) points out, PDP is unlikely to be successfully implemented within an HEI ‘if a. . .burdensome system is imposed from above.’

Quasi-industrial methods of teaching

Although it has some obvious connections with the issue of resourcing PDP, another area that may be seen as difficult is the extent to which the quasi-industrial methods of teaching large numbers of First Year undergraduates in some programmes negatively impact on the creation of an organisational culture which encourages any kind of reflection. It may also negatively affect the creation of staff’student relationships that generate sufficient familiarity and trust to sustain the openness and honesty necessary for reflective dialogues on personal development to take place.

Student resistance to participation in PDP

Student resistance to participation in PDP is often referred to by those involved in its implementation. This appears to have two main causes. The first is the association that university students make between similar activities at secondary school that they found unsatisfactory; sometimes because of their unfulfilled expectations that employers and admissions tutors would always consider the contents of a Progress File or similar kind of portfolio as part of application procedures. The second is that students are prepared to give time to reflection on their development and compilation of a Progress File of some kind only if they are paid for it in the currency of academic credits and/or if it is a required part of a programme. If it is a voluntary ‘add-on’, then students need to be given a convincing answer to the question, ‘what’s in it for me?’.

The Burgess Report (Universities UK/SCoP, 2004) engaged with one aspect of this problem in its Recommendation 7:

in taking work forward on recording achievement in higher education, full account should be taken of existing congruent practice, including developments in schools and further education colleges, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The opportunity should be taken particularly to ensure that this dovetails with emerging proposals and policies for 14-19 education.

Let us turn now to examine the implementation of PDP at Oxford Brookes against the background of some of these areas of identified difficulty. The key points of implementation at Oxford Brookes are:

  • A PDP Policy was agreed ( within the framework of the Learning and Teaching Strategy and implemented with effect from the beginning of the AY2005/06.
  • At this stage the PDP Policy applies only to undergraduates and students on Foundation Degree programmes beginning their studies from September 2005. It excludes undergraduates on courses which already contain ‘PDP equivalent’ activity – all courses in the School of Health and Social Care and some teacher training programmes in Westminster Institute. The inclusion of postgraduates will be considered at some future point.
  • Information on PDP was circulated to Module Leaders and Field Chairs for inclusion in Module Guides and Field Guides for the AY 2005/06.
  • An electronic tool, ‘My PDP’, has been made available to First Year Undergraduates and Foundation Degree students; it can be accessed by a tab on PIP. ‘My PDP’ is linked to students’ programme details. It begins by asking new undergraduate users some questions about motivation and ambitions. Students can email their answers to their Personal Tutors in the form of a brief statement to use as the focus for introductory meetings. In its other sections, ‘My PDP’ prompts and guides students to self-assess their development of those six generic or transferable skills that are included as learning outcomes in undergraduate modules and then invites users to compile evidential statements to support their claims to have acquired (or failed to acquire) these skills. It also provides similar guidance on compiling evidence about how these skills have been developed outside the curriculum. There is an option to compile evidence about a small group of additional skills that are not included in the group of six ‘Brookes skills’ but which have been identified as important by employers. Students are invited to discuss their evidence with their Personal Tutors from time to time. ‘My PDP’ also contains an Action Plan function to encourage students to identify how they might develop those skills they feel they are deficient in, and it indicates to students where these skills are taught and/or practised and/or assessed in modules in their registered programmes. It concludes by asking students to draft a summary statement or ‘Personal Development Statement’ (PDS) before they graduate. If they wish, the PDS can be sent to a Personal Tutor who can ‘sign it off’ electronically (if it meets certain criteria set out in the PDP Policy); this will automatically generate text on the Transcript which confirms that the student concerned has participated in PDP.
  • As the text immediately above indicates, it is expected that Personal Tutors will play a central role in supporting students in their participation in PDP by helping them to critically examine the evidential statements they produce and reflect on their progress. In recognition of this, Personal Tutors receive an allocation of two hours per tutee within the framework of Personal Workload Plans. Guidance on PDP for teaching staff in their roles as Personal Tutors (and Module Leaders) is included in the 2005/06 edition of the Supporting Students Handbook, accessible through the ‘Staff Guides’ tab on Staff PIP

But how are the areas of difficulty likely to impact on the approach to the implementation of PDP at Oxford Brookes?

Student participation in PDP is voluntary

As we have already noted, access to ‘My PDP’ and related information is not available to undergraduates whose courses already have compulsory elements of PDP-related activity. For others, participation in PDP is voluntary; the text of ‘My PDP’ sets out some claimed advantages that will follow from using it, as do Module Guides and Field Guides where teaching staff have chosen to include information circulated for this purpose (see above).

The Academic Board considered Learning and Teaching Committee’s recommendation that undergraduate participation in PDP should be compulsory (to the extent of requiring each student who completed a degree programme to produce a PDS before being allowed to graduate). Student representatives on the Board argued that many students would benefit from increased job opportunity awareness and better preparation for employment selection procedures as a result of participating in PDP. For this reason, they contended, participation in PDP should be a compulsory requirement in order to overcome students’ reluctance to take part in an activity which they might initially not understand the value of and for which they were not being rewarded with credits. However, the Board took the view that it would take time for Personal Tutors to develop the necessary skills to properly support students’ engagement in PDP, and there was obvious discomfort with the possibility that an undergraduate may qualify for a First but be denied an award because they had not submitted acceptable evidence of participation in PDP. Consequently, the proposal that there should be compulsory undergraduate participation in PDP was rejected. Therefore, there is a high risk that relatively few students at Oxford Brookes will engage in PDP (incurring the criticism that it is merely a ‘symbolic’ system (East, 2005)) unless there are changes in practice that encourage them to do so. These changes may not necessarily be uniform across all disciplines or Schools.

One approach would be to explore ways in which undergraduate use of ‘My PDP’ could be awarded marks within a module. On the face of it, this could be very straightforward, with marks being given if students complete the sections of ‘My PDP’ that ask them to compile evidential statements to support their claim to have acquired those generic skills that are included in the learning outcomes of any given module. A similar approach is already being taken by one Module Leader who plans to award marks to undergraduates who provide satisfactory evidence that they have taken part in a voluntary attendance Careers workshop designed for a particular School.

A more generic approach would simply involve teaching staff giving a ‘higher profile’ to PDP by more actively promoting participation in PDP as a useful and valuable thing to do and by making clear links between much more explicit presentation of skills development activities and material within undergraduate modules and use of ‘My PDP’. However, this is more likely to happen if teaching staff are given evidence that PDP is useful and valuable; something that is dependent on the outcome of more rigorous evaluation of PDP that is referred to elsewhere.

Personal Tutors playing a central role in supporting undergraduates in the process of Personal Development Planning

In the light of East’s concerns (see above) and what is generally known about the increasing pressures on the time of teaching staff where ‘commitments are ever expanding and research is gaining or has taken precedent’, (Kuhtmann, 2005) the decision to use Personal Tutors in this way at Oxford Brookes may appear to be a risky one. The arguments for making the decision draw on two main points.

The first is the very straightforward one that if we are to successfully ‘reach out’ to a large number of undergraduates to get them to look more critically at their development in the context of learning opportunities and their longer-term goals, limited Personal Tutor time is the only resource large enough to make this possible. The second is that the initial focus of ‘My PDP’ is the development of those skills that can be included as learning outcomes in any module in the Undergraduate Modular Programme; therefore, every Personal Tutor should be familiar with these learning outcomes from their teaching roles, should understand the kind of evidence students would be expected to put forward to demonstrate that they had acquired these generic skills and be able to help students reflect on the evidence statements that they enter in ‘My PDP’ – no matter what the discipline. A related point emerged from the survey of Personal Tutors undertaken by Oxford Brookes in 2004, where the message from staff was that they felt they did not require any additional training to work with tutees on PDP; instead, they felt they would draw upon their established battery of pedagogic skills. Nevertheless, a project is taking place during this academic year at Oxford Brookes – co-ordinated by Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development – that is designed to develop personal tutoring skills against the background of the implementation of PDP.

However, we have to take a realistic view of the time that Personal Tutors have available for this kind of activity. Anecdotally – and in the survey referred to – Personal Tutors state that the increased use of PIP by undergraduates means that many tutees no longer have a reason to call to see their Personal Tutors. Of course, this does not mean that the unused time has somehow been protected and is sitting in Tutors’ diaries waiting to be put back into use to support PDP. It has been taken up by those increased demands we have already noted. Consequently, Personal Tutors are understandably anxious about what are perceived as additional and new demands on their time. Nonetheless, there may be good reasons for allocating a proportionate amount of time to working with undergraduates on PDP.

One may be associated with Schools making a policy decision to change approaches to student support to reduce voluntary ‘drop-out’ or academic failure. At Brookes, arguments for doing this may be strengthened by the reported reduction in Personal Tutor’student interactions, weakening the ‘social glue’ of the University community and our capacity to identify and anticipate student difficulties that may lead to underachievement, drop-out or failure. This kind of response will almost certainly involve some kind of re-shaping of Personal Tutoring. East (2005) writes,

Many HEIs, for example, have a tutor system where staff provide advice to students on academic and other matters. Experience at Glamorgan supports the idea that embedding progress files into this process can give it substantial ‘added value’. The use of a progress file means that a student can readily produce a more transparent account of their individual progress in their studies. This should inform the tutor’s support and advice role, making the process more worthwhile for staff and students alike.

The School of Biological and Molecular Sciences (BMS) at Oxford Brookes has, in the AY 2005/06, introduced just such a re-shaping of Personal Tutoring in the form of Personal and Academic Support for Students (PASS) and is using ‘My PDP’ to assist the dialogue between Personal Tutors and First Year undergraduates that lies at the heart of PASS. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of the inclusion of PASS being undertaken by Sue Robbins of BMS and, if it is seen to impact positively on retention, the extent to which it is transferable to other Schools.

Changed student expectations likely to follow the 2006 fee changes may include being offered a higher level of ‘personal attention’, which can be delivered only through an enhanced Personal Tutoring system. PDP offers the opportunity for a structured and controlled approach that can reinvigorate Personal Tutoring and strengthen Personal Tutor’Tutee relationships by focussing regularly and routinely on the academic, professional and personal development of undergraduates. Although it may seem contradictory we need not think of ‘personal attention’ as being given only on a one-to-one basis in the context of PDP. There may not always be time for one-to-one work and, in any event, getting together small groups of tutees to discuss PDP may both save time and be more effective. Tutees could benefit from sharing with each other their perceptions of skills perception, the way they think about life and career goals and the approaches they use to pursue them.

Reflection is a difficult and not sufficiently understood process

The limitations of our understanding of reflection in the context of PDP need to be acknowledged, and all HEIs need to support the proposals (Ward et al., 2005) to improve this understanding. But the first stage of implementing PDP at Oxford Brookes places strict limits on the scope of the reflection students undertake. It has a clear emphasis on helping undergraduates to be more aware of the supporting evidence they can offer in response to questions about skills, personal attributes and experience that are likely to feature in selection procedures for employment and perhaps further study. The assumption is that this supporting evidence can be drawn from learning experiences within the curriculum or outside it in, for example, employment, leisure activities or voluntary work. Evidence from staff working in Careers Education, Information and Guidance throughout the higher education sector and from research that has looked at undergraduates’ awareness of transferable skills (Haigh and Kilmartin, 1999; Burke, 2005) suggests that students tend to not be aware that they have developed these skills. In addition, they fail to make connections with their own experience and learning and are often unable to offer evidence for their acquisition of skills on application forms and at employment selection interviews, even though limited prompting of students by careers staff reveals that the skills have been acquired and the evidence can be provided and articulated. ‘My PDP’ and the PDP process offers prompts to help students make the necessary connections in order to compile evidence and to think critically and carefully about how to use it.

We may also need to take a more relaxed view of the Personal Tutor conversations that we are expecting to be one way in which student reflection is supported and encouraged. Whilst we should remain alert to making teaching staff aware of ways in which these conversations can be made more helpful, we must remember that we are simply seeking to offer students a conversation with an ‘informed other’ who can ask questions about a limited focus of reflection; we are not expecting Personal Tutors to become Careers Advisors or Counsellors. There are clear referral routes to specialist services and guidance on how to use them when the need for them is identified or is suspected. Any context in which we are offering the opportunity to larger numbers of students to explore self, life goals and some aspects of personal development is bound to be somewhat chaotic and fuzzy. There may be a misplaced anxiety about trying to apply quasi-professional standards to conversations that have been part of the landscape of higher education for more than 700 years (Earwaker, 1992).

These limited goals and limited focus of reflection may, with some justification, be regarded as working only at the margins of one aspect of the learner’s experience – the preparation for and transition to employment – but is an increasingly important aspect for many undergraduates, given the impact of changes in student funding support and increases in levels of debt. It is one of the University’s responsibilities to equip and prepare all our graduates to enable them to compete as effectively as possible in the transition to employment or further study.

In brief, the conclusion is that we should acknowledge the validity of evidence we have about undergraduates’ low levels of awareness of their skills development and use the accessible and low-key approach to raising it offered by Personal Tutor’Tutee conversations that focus on a limited range of transferable skills, combined with the use of ‘My PDP’ and perhaps other emerging electronic approaches that can be used to help students gather and critically examine their evidence for their development. This process can begin now whilst the wider-ranging, more ambitious and perhaps more problematical claims made for PDP’s contribution to learning continue to be examined and assessed.


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Keith Cooper

Keith Cooper is Head of Student Services at Oxford Brookes University. He directed a HEFCE FDTL 3 project focusing on the development of electronic Progress Files at Oxford Brookes and Thames Valley Universities which led to the development of Brookes’ ‘My PDP’. Currently, he is a member of the Steering Group of the FDTL 5 project, Enhancing Graduate Employability, lead by Brookes in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University and is Oxford Brookes’ link-person to the Centre for Recording Achievement.

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