Debate is about to get personal

July 14, 2006

Do students need formal processes by which to plan their development, or does this constitute hand-holding? Opinion is split, finds Harriet Swain

Battered and embittered by the reactions of reluctant colleagues and indifferent students, a group of about 30 academics have gathered to share horror stories and tips about the difficulties of being responsible for a university's programme of personal development planning for students.

The occasion, at Oxford Brookes University, is one of a number of seminars, organised nationwide by the Higher Education Academy, that explore how those charged with implementing PDP can prove that their work is worthwhile.

At the start of this academic year, all higher education institutions in England were supposed to have in place a PDP programme - a structured process by which students reflect on their learning and performance and plan their personal, educational and career development. In Scotland, an implementation date has yet to be decided.

Now those responsible for putting PDP in place are trying to evaluate their achievements, but not all have persuaded academics that such evaluation is necessary or even possible.

"The responses I've received from staff range from angry, distressed and frightened to pressured for time," says Hazel Peperell, principal lecturer working on PDP at The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

"They say this is another change when they have only just switched to semesters."

Lord Dearing is partly to blame. His report, published in 1997, recommended that higher education institutions develop a transcript that records student achievement and a means by which students could monitor, build and reflect on their personal development.

But long before Dearing, there was growing pressure to encourage students to think about how, as well as what, they were learning. In 1991, a two-year project funded by what was the Employment Department was set up to help universities assess applicants' skills beyond school grades. This developed into the Centre for Recording Achievement, an educational charity and now associate centre of the HEA, devoted to supporting implementation of PDP at all levels of education.

The charity is working with higher education institutions and individuals to develop training for staff, and electronic resources to help make PDP a routine part of university life. It is also sharing expertise with institutions abroad, since having PDP as a national requirement is a world first.

The next stage, according to Rob Ward, director of the CRA, is to move away from the view of PDP as a bureaucratic add-on and towards making it "part of the way students learn about their subjects and, ultimately, themselves as well" - something he thinks vital in today's unstable work environment.

But huge variations exist between institutions and subjects as to how PDP is being rolled out. In some, it is now a separate, assessed and credited module; in others, students simply fill in a form voluntarily.

One problem is that PDP seems to mean different things to the various people implementing it. Some at the seminar could not understand how colleagues could assess personal development, in effect making judgments about what was going on in students' heads. Others argued that making PDP voluntary suggested to students that the institution did not take it seriously.

Another problem is that different people want PDP to serve different purposes. Its primary aim is to help the student think about what they are learning and to enable them to articulate this to others, thereby supporting the learning process. But, according to John Peters, associate director for research at the CRA, university managers also see PDP as a way of improving student retention and their institution's destinations data and general standing. There are even suggestions that some institutions see the data gathered through the PDP process as a potential money-spinner.

Former students could be charged to access their details on the university server for purposes such as updating their CV.

Some academics are wholly opposed to PDP. Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, says it is just a way of getting students used to the idea of constant monitoring once they start work.

"It's about getting them to conform to certain targets, not to think for themselves."

He also argues that PDP encourages student dependency. By making tutors responsible for helping students to set learning targets, it becomes the tutor's fault if they fail, he says.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, is also critical. He calls PDP "an empty gesture" because it would need "a phenomenal amount of resources to have any kind of content".

Others are more positive. Day's colleague, Deborah Mutch, also a lecturer in English, says: "I do think it's important for students to understand how they are learning, not just what they are learning, so they can then use this in whatever they decide to do."

The difficulty she identifies, which is echoed at the seminar, is that the good students tend to be the ones who take up PDP, while the less able, who could most benefit from it, often do not bother. Statistics show that students who engage in PDP are more likely to get firsts, but even the CRA concedes that this could be because the more motivated students are more likely to use it.

One seminar delegate recalled being moved to tears by some of the pieces written by students as part of their PDP programme; others reported students writing rubbish because they knew it was not being assessed.

Julian Nicholls, vice-president, education, at the National Union of Students, says the NUS regards PDP as a positive thing, so long as it does not replace other forms of pastoral care.

Richard Angell, president of Birmingham University Guild of Students, goes further, slating academics who do not take it seriously. "It is about developing people's skills and giving them the ability to articulate them afterwards. It is a travesty if a student comes to university for three years but cannot talk to an employer afterwards about what they have done,"

he says.

Damola Timeyin, a final-year student in accounting and finance at Leeds University, has taken a PDP module as part of his course. He says it is useful as long as it is continuous. "It's like a New Year's resolution, but it gives you more structure and direction."

Certainly, those at the seminar believe that PDP will be a force for good - once more sceptical colleagues have made their own resolutions to take it on board.

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