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PDP: personal development planning

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page contains brief notes on how to start thinking about PDP (Personal Development Planning). I suppose I felt the need for this because most of the talks I've heard related to PDP seem very narrow: lacking all critical thought, awareness of others' views, and above all a complete lack of contact with actual student actions and concerns.

This page is my main one on PDP. It supercedes an earlier one under "best/". PDP is also briefly dealt with on my qee page, where its relationship to other enhancement themes and to employability is discussed. It could be thought of as a practical instantiation of taking seriously that students self-actualise: develop a notion of themselves as students, which is mentioned on this page.

See also this page and diagram about how PDP relates to other issues.

The 3 types of PDP

There are several rather different major areas within a complete PDP (personal development planning) approach.

  1. Personal life goals. That is, working out what, for the individual, are their main aims in life, and how that relates to what they do. Thus for an HE student, this would deal with why they are at university and what they want out of it whether that is a certificate, a career, making friends, pursuing an interest etc.
  2. Study skills.
    1. Study skills. How to be an effective student. How the particular subject you are doing intersects with the study methods you have, or need to have.
    2. More grandly though: being a student. Not the tactical details like study skills, but the self-development or self-actualisation of Maslow, or Kelly's construct development.
  3. Career. (You could relate that to the 5 levels that employability qualities could be divided into.)
    1. What you might do after university, how what you are studying relates to that; whether there are other topics, subjects, skills you should acquire.
    2. Secondary aspect of that: acquiring skills at applying for a job successfully (CV writing, interview skills). Also, acquiring documentation for this (portfolios, lists of things you have actually done that employers would count as evidence e.g. number of essays written, talks given, ...)

Five levels of "graduate attributes"

In considering the notion of employability together with what a student takes away from a degree course, we might distinguish five levels. These interact with the three kinds of PDP. In fact there is a huge range of possible kinds of thing:
  1. Low level employability features that employers (such as I) definitely find handy, such as a driving licence, ability to operate a spreadsheet; although teaching them is scarcely the core purpose of a university.
  2. The skill of assembling an argument, preferably based on evidence, to an employer about the graduate's worth. This relates to "PDP" (personal development portfolios) which may collect material for use in this way. A good example course aimed at this is Ian Bushnell's Professional skills module (described in part of this handbook.)
  3. Critical thinking etc. Lists of general intellectual properties, expressed as skills. These are the things referred to as "graduate attributes". (Of course, they tend to make all disciplines sound the same, yet the chief defining attribute of a graduate is that they have been educated in one particular discipline, and NOT in all; and their habits of thought are markedly different because of this.) A good example course aimed at this is Helen Fraser's "Project training" course for level 3 physics undergraduates.
  4. A critical appreciation of the virtues and limitations of the discipline studied (i.e. of its approach and methods in general, as opposed to particular ideas or findings within it). Many departments do not do this well. (For example, I have heard an employer say she preferred to employ as programmers people with a Physics rather than a Computing degree, because they used programming methods pragmatically not dogmatically.)
  5. The ultimate unmeasured value of HE. I have the impression (I have not yet done this systematically) that if you ask people what were the most valuable things they got from their university education, most do not mention anything on the curriculum. There is a wide perception of value, but it is not any of these listed things. This is argued in: Brown, John Seely & Duguid, Paul (2000) The social life of information (Harvard Business School Press, Boston Mass.) especially ch.8 "Re-education"; and was also the essential view of Cardinal Newman in his The idea of a university. Listing "graduate attributes" has a specious air of reason, yet probably still misses the main value of a higher education.

Public vs. private

Many of the contrasts and problems around this topic are about the two faces of PDP: public and private.
Conflicting aspects of PDP?
Public Private
Imposed Self-generated
Controlling Empowering
Other's judgements Self-revealing experience, reflection
For employability, skills useful to others For improving one's education, changes to one's mind valued by yourself
A repository to help the university To serve one's own needs
Learning to say things to impress employers Analysing what you really need to improve yourself.
Not mentioning anything bad Identifying what you need to improve
Learning to articulate real strengths
Looking backwards Looking forward
Writing "reflection" that staff want to see Reflective writing that is about what you really think regardless of whether it looks good or relevant to others

Technology / e-portfolios

Obviously the technical support of e-portfolios actually addresses only a small part of the above at best.

E-portfolios are really, technologically, just repositories (i.e. databases capable of storing objects in many media) plus services.
Which services are desirable depends on the purposes. These are multi-dimensional.

Educational purposes: (progress files, PDPlans, records of achievement, showcasing, shared workspaces.)

There is a triangle of:

There is a 2D space of:


PDP as personal development planning portfolios has a number of different ideas are heaped together here:

Standing critique 1

The Dearing report recommended that HEIs do something about it, and there is a persistent push from funding councils on this. The unfortunate aspect of this is that it is couched as something HEIs must do to students, without any consideration of how learners currently deal with this. This is analogous to the worst practice in organisations where managers send employees on courses without any measure of whether they learn anything on the course, nor if they do of whether that learning then makes any difference to their practice on the job, nor if it does, whether the actual change in practice addresses the original need. It is box ticking: being seen to "do" something without regard to need or effectiveness.

Thus this area is a bad case of deciding to do something to students because teachers have decided it's good for them, without the slightest attempt to study what students already do in this area, and to connect to that. In fact students I've interviewed already do considerable reflection on their study skills (although they don't call it that). Most PDP won't help or relate to the way students consider each year how they personally might modify their study approaches. Hence in practice, the portfolios are designed to allow teachers to reflect on their students' practices, not to augment the already impressive private practices of students.

A quite different approach would be to study how these functions are successfully addressed at present without overt support called "PDP" from the institution, and how that success could be built on. For instance, interviews with graduating students indicate massive changes over the four years in how they study, with a variety of "significant incidents" but most commonly the experience of earlier diets of exams leads to private decisions on how to reorganise revision practices. Again, many staff believe that schools used to prepare students for university e.g. by teaching them note-taking methods, weekly essays based on library readings, etc. If it is true that this no longer is provided, then how best to provide that in first year. Again, some students seek part time and/or vacation work (whether voluntary or paid) in the professions they are considering, and use that to decide whether they really want to work in them (quite often, not) and if so, have established both a record of experience and personal contacts. This is self-organised work experience focussed on their personal plans.

Standing critique 2

Are these things good for everyone, or is PDP only worthwhile for some students? Many writings in the area take it for granted that PDP and planning is a universal good.

In favour is to avoid dumping out students at the end of a degree with no preparation for job seeking and getting.

Against the more naive pro-PDP attitudes is that:

Also, the feedback on current schemes at this university seems to be that the few students who voluntarily attend them say they are very valuable. So it may be that, like most drug and alcohol rehab, it benefits only those who have already made an internal commitment. So making it compulsory would not work; and any further roll-out would need to be about changing hearts and minds i.e. selling its benefits to students.

Critique 3

Many PDP schemes are only about career preparation or study skills; but the first and more important aspect is about life goals. And it is this aspect that is likely to be strongly linked to student dropout. So this is the important part of PDP to address.

Best practical things

I haven't come across any practical actions in this area with direct objective evidence of effectiveness. However here are some practical actions that each department could take that seem worthwhile to me.


  • HE academy page on PDP resources etc.
  • Individualised Support for Learning through ePortfolios (ISLE) project See also JISC page on it
  • Pebblepad is software for PDP that comes well recommended by students and staff who have used it. See also its wikipedia entry.
  • Andrew Litchfield's Framework for graduate attribute training exercises: intro page   The matrix
  • My draft page on relating PDP, employability, graduate attributes. It includes a citation and quick description of Ian Bushnell's textbook for students on PDP.
  • Bushnell, Ian W. R. (2007) Life after university : a personal development programme (Pearson Custom Publishing) More notes on it here.
  • Johnny Bunko: a subversive advice on career planning. (A good place to buy it is, seems both cheaper and faster.)
  • Karina Buckley PDP 18-page literature review
  • Sue Clegg and Serena Bufton (2008) "Student support through personal development planning: retrospection and time" Research Papers in Education vol.23 No.4 pp.435-450

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