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Published by the Learning and Teaching Unit
Summer 2003
ISSN 1477-1241
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Vol 2 Issue 2: Flexible and Lifelong Learning

LTiA home page

Brian Murphy

Lifelong Learning: the agenda and the response
Rob Halsall

Flexible Learning within MMU: Working smarter not harder
Fred Lockwood

"What the ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. is going on ?"
Trevor Williamson

How adults really learn- or what we think we know about how they learn!
Jane Artess

'Transformative' Models for Learning, Teaching and Academic Professional Development - A 'Self-ish' Approach
Shaheena Abbas

Developing a Departmental Employability Strategy
Chrissie Gibson

The eUniversity
David Lambrick

Skills for Lifelong Learning: A Progress Report
Louise Willmot

Professional Modern Apprenticeships
Vic Leyden

Lifelong Learning Means You Too
Hannah Peace

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

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Photo of Trevor Williamson

Trevor Williamson
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, The Business School

“What the ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. is going on ?”

A University Working Group has raised awareness of the QAA requirement to have Personal Development Planning Schemes in place for all award-bearing students by 2005/6. This article reveals what has been going on within the university and elsewhere to meet this deadline. Examination of three pilot schemes identifies some of the issues involved and their resource implications. For investment to be worthwhile, the challenge is to design schemes that encourage staff and student engagement in the processes that underpin personal development planning activities, not just delivery of the outcomes. It is only in this way that real value will be added to the student learning experience and to the institution.

Part of my responsibilities as a Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow and member of the University Working Group overseeing implementation of Personal Development Planning (PDP) schemes throughout MMU has been to find out what has been going on in these respects at other institutions

Case studies on the website for The Centre for Recording Achievement1 and visits to several universities have helped me to understand the obligation that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has placed upon all Higher Education (HE) institutions regarding introduction of Progress Files (PFs) and given me valuable insights into factors that are likely to determine the success of any Personal Development Planning scheme.

Diagram: The concept of the HE progress file
Figure 1: The concept of the HE Progress File2

There are three elements to the Progress File (see Figure 1):

  • Institutional records of learning and achievement ( transcripts );
  • An individual’s own personal development records and reflections of their learning, achievements, plans and goals;
  • Personal Development Planning

PDP is defined by the QAA3 as:

“A structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”

The ideas that students’ learning experiences may be enhanced through structured reflection and that compilation of comprehensive personal development portfolios will boost their employment prospects are not new. All three elements of PFs have been in existence, in one form or another, throughout MMU for many years. What is new is the obligation placed upon MMU to demonstrate to the QAA that PDP processes do take place throughout the university and that the university transcript provides each student with a comprehensive record of their achievement.

Given that PDP schemes have to be shown to be in place for all award–bearing students by 2005/6, the three main issues that members of the Working Group have been grappling with in their endeavours to determine an appropriate institutional policy concern matters of structure, support and timing. Whilst MMU Policy is still to be declared, the recommendation of the Working Group is that Faculties and the Business School should be free to determine their approach to PDP, so as to take into account local circumstances and the nature of studies undertaken. The opportunity to customise PDP schemes not only helps to overcome resistance of academic staff who are generally resistant to initiatives that are perceived to be centrally imposed through a top-down process4, but also, and more importantly, enhances the perceived value of engagement in the underlying processes by both staff and students.

For the student, effective and well supported PDP activities may help them to:5

  • Become more effective, independent and confident self-directed learners;
  • Understand how they are learning and relate their learning to a wider context;
  • Articulate their personal goals and relate their learning towards their achievement;
  • Improve their general skills for study and career management.

For the institution PDP is likely to:

  • Facilitate more effective monitoring of student progress
  • Result in more effective academic support and guidance systems
  • Enhance their capacity to demonstrate the quality of support they are giving to students in external review processes.

A significant barrier to PDP development is the limited funding and resource available to support development across the University. Being accustomed to working in a finance environment and using investment appraisal techniques to determine the relative attractiveness of competing projects, has lead me to believe that it is the uncertainty surrounding the timing and scale of any future incremental cash flows to the University that is making life difficult in attracting central resource to support current PDP development. At the moment the perception, indeed the reality, is that significant incremental costs will be incurred in the short-term and the net benefit to the University over time is difficult to determine. Many of the benefits that should accrue to the University are difficult to quantify. There appears to be a faith that an effective PDP schemes will enhance student retention and employability, but the lack of any reliable evidence to support such claims makes it impossible to factor in these potential benefits when evaluating the net present benefits of PDP investment.

The main driving force behind PDP development at the moment is the compulsion to have PDP schemes in place for all award bearing students by 2005. Most of the development work has focused on full-time undergraduate provision, but will need to be extended to several thousand postgraduate and part-time students. A responsibility of the Working Group is to identify mechanisms by which ideas and best practices can be shared across the University to make sure time and effort is spent cost effectively and to reduce the risk of a “big-bang” approach in the summer of 2005.

Accounting and Finance Pilot

A pilot PDP scheme was launched in September 2002 for 250 first-year Accounting and Finance students. The model, which is similar to the scheme in operation at Nottingham University, runs alongside a core Organisational Behaviour and Personal Skills (OBPS) unit and seeks to add value by enhancing the quality and effectiveness of the personal tutorial system (see Figure 2).

Diagram: the pilot PDP scheme in Accounting and Finance year 1

Figure 2: The pilot PDP scheme in Accounting and Finance - Year 1

Three 10 minute scheduled personal tutorials take place during the academic year. These are centrally coordinated to ensure consistency of approach and to reduce the administrative burden on individual tutors. A short agenda is set for each meeting, based primarily upon the formative and summative assessments students have received from across all subject areas. The PDP file (paper-based, ring-binder) is not assessed, but each of the Learning Set Activities, forming part of the OBPS unit, including a Reflective Journal is assessed. It appears that the decision to appoint Personal Tutors who are also Subject Tutors on the first year of the course has been critical to its success. Regular contact with personal tutees has served to reinforce the importance placed upon PDP within the subject area and raised expectations about its significance and value.

I had hoped to be able to head this article `MMUBS pilot PDP scheme boosts student retention in Accounting and Finance by 20%`. Whilst some value has been derived from operation of the pilot, the multiplicity of factors that influence retention rates makes it impossible to assess the impact of PDP in this respect. Imagine, however, the response of the Business School and MMU if it could be shown that such an initiative had resulted in retention of 30-40 more first-year Accounting and Finance students. I suggest that the Working Group’s task of securing funding to extend the scheme across the institution would be much easier to accomplish.

Anecdotal evidence from Personal Tutors indicates that the main benefits to staff have been:

  • Early indication of students with problems affecting their studies;
  • Better understanding of the development of individual students;
  • More information upon which to take decisions at Examination Boards and to provide references on their tutees’ behalf.

Student feedback has been obtained in the form of a commissioned research project undertaken by final year Business Studies’ students6. The main benefits to students have been:

  • Increased level and quality of contact with tutors;
  • Decreased levels of non-attendance in subject seminars;
  • Opportunities to raise concerns with tutors.

Their main concerns were:

  • Insufficient time in Scheduled Personal Tutorials for some students;
  • Limited engagement of some students;
  • Increased workload on staff.

Interestingly two of the recommendations put forward were to assign a credit value to the PDP process and not to implement an on-line scheme. These are two of the key issues that staff in other subject areas will have to consider when deciding upon the type of PDP scheme to be implemented.

Many staff might share the views of these students that engagement in PDP activities will only be assured if they are assessed. On the other hand, many staff will raise fundamental doubts and concerns about assessment of PDPs. How does one assess another person’s reflections upon their learning and their personal development plans (i.e something they intend to do in the future)? These and other concerns influenced the Department of Chemistry and Materials when they decided not to assign a credit value to its PDP scheme (see below).

On-line schemes have been developed at several institutions. Nottingham now has an electronic version of its paper-based `PAR’ scheme7. Loughborough University secured £350,000 of external funding to develop its `RAPID’ scheme8. Liverpool University has a `LUSID’ on-line scheme9, the guiding principle behind its development being that it is the process of recording achievement that is important, not just the product. From a learning and teaching perspective this should be the driving force. An on-line scheme may be the most cost effective approach and it may be the best way for an institution to demonstrate to the QAA that it has satisfied its requirement, but unless staff and student engagement is driven by the desire to enhance the quality of learning the added value must surely be in some doubt.

Art & Design Pilot

The approach adopted in the Art and Design pilot is entirely in keeping with the guiding principle underpinning the development of the `LUSID’ scheme at Liverpool. PDP schemes are being developed for use in 5 first year programmes covering some 200 students. Personal Development Tutorials will be focused on:

  • encouragement and facilitation of reflection on learning;
  • creation of space for discussion on learning ambitions and the factors which are restricting learning;
  • development of personal agendas and future plans;
  • development of critically evaluative commentaries which will encourage reflection on the achievement and aspiration towards career and professional developments.


Chemistry and Materials Pilot10

This is based on an online WebCT-delivered scheme, supported through the departmental personal tutor system. A paper-based system is reserved as a back-up in the interim. Students will access all the resources they need on-line e.g. e-documents, timetables, helpful internet links. The calendar function within WebCT will guide students as to the contact points with their personal tutor throughout the year. The materials used have been produced by the Royal Society of Chemistry and are available free to all students of `Chemical Sciences’. The Department has simply integrated this into a Web CT-managed structure.

It is a compulsory advisory scheme with no assessment. The Department has taken the viewpoint that assessment of PDP would interfere with the freedom of exchange between the tutor and the student. It was felt that students would be less open in discussing their self-assessment of progress and reluctant to seek advice from someone who would be assessing their Progress Files.

Diagram: Factors that underpin and influence the success of PDP schemes

Figure 3 Factors that underpin and influence the success of PDP schemes

Students will be encouraged to compile an electronic portfolio to provide evidence of engagement with PDP processes and activities. A satisfactory rating may eventually be required to progress each year. Evaluation, however, will not be based on detailed assessment of PDP performance but rather on the student having produced their portfolio.

What needs to be ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. going on

In keeping with the spirit of the PF concept, the following is the outcome of my experience, reflections and theorising about PDP development. Figure 3 represents my views of the supporting structures that need to be in place to ensure that MMU meets the obligation placed upon it by the QAA and to increase the possibility of success of any PDP schemes introduced.

The key building blocks that need to be put in place are:

Central / Faculty support and funding

Although costs will be incurred in the development of PDP schemes, especially if on-line delivery is to be pursued, the key cost will be the staff time associated with PDP contact with students. From a University perspective, if the Accounting and Finance model was adopted, the direct student contact hours would be significant. Finance has calculated the contact time to be of the order of 13,500 to 20,250 hours (based on 21,000 full time students and 9,000 part time students). In itself this equates to the work of 25 to 37 staff, assuming 550 contact hours per year. The debate surrounds the extent to which time spent on PDP activity is seen as being incremental or offset by time currently spent on existing tutorial support. In any event, choices will have to be made as to how staff time can be redirected from other activities that some might see as being more directly related to adding value and income generation across the University.

Equitable and recognised workloads

Recognition of the workload involved in PDP activities is problematic. Although all academic staff would accept that the pastoral care of students is an important part of their professional responsibilities, staff-student ratios in different subject areas and demands of students at different stages of their development places differing demands upon their time. If additional effort is to be expended on PDP activities, some mechanism for determining fair and equitable workloads will have to be established, otherwise it could become a marginal activity that consumes resource for little gain. As O’Connel (2002) points out:

`The strengthening of tutorial arrangements through PDPs represents a more proactive form of learner support. Typically these activities are not as well quantified as more formal teaching duties within allocation of duties. There is need for more formal recognition of this form of learner support in the allocation of staff workloads’

Customised design and implementation

The Working Group has recommended that ` The (PDP) scheme adopted should reflect the distinctive curriculum and organisational patterns associated with each subject area..’11

This is critical to the success of any PDP scheme. Without this staff and students are unlikely to engage with the underlying processes of PDP and the exercise will become one of `ticking the boxes’ to satisfy the bureaucratic demands of the QAA.

Administrative support

Staff training and development will be required. Given that the University has adopted WebCT as its virtual learning environment, linked to the student records’ system, there is an argument for an on-line scheme. Such an on-line would allow for more efficient administration of PDP i.e. contacting students, creating and reviewing records. It would also facilitate the monitoring of student engagement and evaluation of the impact of its introduction.

Introduction of paper-based or on-line schemes will not function effectively without administrative support and clear guidelines regarding respective responsibilities and reporting requirements.

Learning support

As O’Connel (2002) also points out:

“It is important to strengthen the interface between personal and academic tutoring and wider student support services so that academic staff can manage the boundaries of their own role and make effective referrals to other student support units within the institution”.

One helpful product of PDP would be early identification of learning support needs and with careful planning this could lead to more effective working relationships between Learning Support Services and other agencies such as the library, Placement units and careers services. This would be of benefit to all students, but especially those with disabilities. This, in turn, this would assist the University to fulfil its obligations associated with widening participation of students on its courses.

What needs to be going on next ?

It is envisaged that once University Policy has been established and minimum guidelines for compliance agreed, Faculties will be called upon to put in motion activities designed to meet the QAA requirement. Local Learning and Teaching Committees appear to be the most appropriate forum for debate of the issues raised. These include:

The nature of local schemes -

  • should they be part of an accredited unit or designed to enhance the personal tutorial system ?
  • should they be paper-based, or on-line, or both ?
  • how should they be customised to suit the requirements of each student group to which they apply ?
  • at what stage should student opinion be sought?


  • what is happening at the moment ?
  • how will staff effort in the design and delivery of any
  • new scheme be recognised ?
  • what are the staff training needs ?
  • how should the scheme link in with Learning Support and other agencies ?


  • when should pilot schemes be launched?
  • what needs to happen, by when, by whom to go live with the full scheme by the due date?
  • what needs to be written in student handbooks / form part of student induction ?
  • how should the impact be monitored / evaluated / reviewed ?

Local effort should be directed towards the PDP element of the Progress File. Work is already is underway to have a University Transcript that will provide a comprehensive, verifiable record of achievement of for each student. This will link in with the new Student Record System being established in 2004

When all of the other activities that need to take place are considered, September 2005 appears much closer on the horizon than we would like. Clearly the sooner we all engage with the processes that will deliver PDP schemes that can add value for our students and the University the better. We really ought to be getting on with ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. !!


  3. The QAA Guidelines for the HE Progress File for HE. At
  4. O’Connel, C. (2002) Personal Development Planning: Setting the Scene: The Challenge for Staff Developers. At
  5. Benefits are listed in the QAA Guidelines for the HE Progress File. See 3
  6. Elliott, Z., Maskell, R., Orus, R., Small, J., and Shah, R., ( 2003 ) Personal Development Planning, Commissioned Consultancy Report, MMUBS
  7. Contact
  8. Contact (Alan)
  9. Contact (Janet)
  10. To gain access to the site use username: pdpchemguest; password: pdpchemguest
  11. Recommendation 4: Interim Report of the Personal Development Planning /Student Progress Files Working Group, MMU, May 2003, p.3

Trevor Williamson
telephone: 0161 247 3777


July 2003
ISSN 1477-1241

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