Personal Development Planning: A Tool for Reflective Learning
By Marilyn Higgins, School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
All departments in higher education institutions must provide students with the opportunity to prepare personal
development plans by 2005/06, but a survey by the author (funded by CEBE) shows that only a minority of
courses within the built environment offer this at present (Higgins, 2002). This is therefore an area ripe for
sharing experience of current activity to help encourage wider participation and effective practice. This case
study evaluates a pilot personal development planning system operated at Edinburgh College of Art/Heriot-Watt
University, School of Planning and Housing, for all postgraduate planning students in 2001/02.
The Learning and Teaching Support Network defines personal development planning (PDP) 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 developmentآ (Jackson, 2001, p.1).
The concept springs from the Dearing Review (NCIHE, 1997) recommendation that institutions develop means
by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development. Since then, PDP activities
have been spearheaded by the Centre for Recording Achievement and the Personal Development Planning in
Higher Education Scotland Network. The bibliography at the end of this paper directs people to useful
publications and websites for further information.
PDPs undertaken during initial professional education link well with trends within the built environment
professions relating both to entry requirements and continuing professional development (CPD). Most of the
built environment professions require something similar to a PDP covering the work experience requirement
preceding full membership. In this regard, PDPs are excellent examples of relationships being forged between
educational and professional requirements. Not only are students encouraged to start good habits of lifelong
learning, they are given practical experience in reflecting, articulating and recording their achievements and
Benefits of Personal Development Plans
Personal development planning brings potential benefits for students, academic staff and institutions, with
student learning and development lying at its heart.
Benefits to students:
a. Integrates personal and academic development, including work experience or other activities outside the
curriculum, improving capacity to plan own learning
b. Promotes reflective practice, effective monitoring and recording achievement
c. Encourages learning from experience, including mistakes
d. Promotes deeper learning by increasing awareness of what students are learning, how and to what level
e. Requires explicit recognition of strengths and required improvements
Provides mechanism for monitoring career-related capabilities to prepare for seeking professional practice,
g. Establishes lifelong learning habits, encompassing continuing professional development.
Benefits to staff:
a. Helps students be more independent and purposeful learners
b. Serves as a focus for personal tutoring
c. Makes more effective use of off campus opportunities, including work placements or study abroad,
encouraging students to integrate these with the curriculum
d. Provides help in writing future references
e. Promotes student understanding of learning outcomes, programme specifications and teaching and learning
Benefits to departments and institutions:
a. Facilitates more effective monitoring of student progress
b. Results in more effective academic and non-academic support and guidance systems
c. Enhances capacity to demonstrate quality of student support mechanisms during external and internal
review (adapted from Jackson, 2001, pp. 8-10).
Product: In academic year 2001/02, 42 postgraduate planning students participated in a pilot project that was
organised by the author (Course Leader and first year tutor) and the University Careers Adviser. A form was
devised (see Appendix 2) that explained the purpose of the plan and gave instructions. Examples of PDPs were
collected from elsewhere that helped crystalise ideas about what was appropriate for postgraduate planning
students. The form included open questions about personal aspirations and also a list of knowledge, skills and
values derived from the Royal Town Planning Institute education guidelines and the town planning benchmark
statement. For each item on the list, students had to give an example of how they had developed the particular
criterion, rate their ability on a scale of 1 to 5, describe what and how they needed to develop, and rate their
enjoyment on a scale of 1 to 5 to give career pointers. This type of form is a hybrid between the very long and
detailed skills lists adopted by some other PDP systems and the more open-ended questionnaires at the other end
of the spectrum. One of the potential strengths of PDPs is that it helps an individual look holistically at him or
herself. Care was taken in the development of the form to include technical planning-related skills as well as
transferable and interpersonal skills. Students were specifically encouraged to integrate all of their experience
into the form: education, planning work experience and outside activites (transferable skills). In this way, the
form was ideal for students on a two-year full-time course who generally undertake summer work experience
within the field as well as part-time students currently working in planning and attending a day release course..
Process: As much thought went into the process as the content of the form; they need to complement each other
to work successfully. The PDP was mentioned at the start of the year as part of induction as well as in the
course handbook. Two career development seminars in second term helped students develop their PDPs. At the
first, a recent graduate and the Head of the RTPI in Scotland were invited to speak about “What Employers are
Looking For.” This led neatly into the issue of PDPs as a way of recording the skills, etc. currently demanded
by employers. PDPs were explained and small groups of students were given a particular section of the draft
form to complete and discuss. On the basis of student feedback, the form was slightly amended with clearer
wording and some synthesis between criteria. A second seminar included a discussion of good practice in job
applications and interview skills, including a video; again, there were obvious links between this process and the
preparation of a PDP. The student computer room was booked and students together began writing their plans
on a soft copy with staff there to provide advice and assistance. These seminars were not part of a module and
could have been better attended, but were very successful ways of introducing PDPs for those who went along.
Throughout the process, close links between the course leader and careers advisor proved very useful; they both
brought complementary skills and were able to support each other in realising course-specific and university-
wide aims simultaneously. The Course Leader collected each individual’s PDP at the end of the year and
developed a student evaluation form so that feedback could guide future activity. Unfortunately, students filled
in the forms at the end of the year and it was too late to be useful in individual tutorials, as intended.
Resources: The pilot project was made possible by the course leader receiving a £4000 grant from Edinburgh
College of Art’s new Learning and Teaching Project Fund. This helped justify the staff time involved in setting
up the system. Neither Heriot-Watt University nor Edinburgh College of Art operate university-wide PDP
systems; this pilot was the first of its kind used at either institution. A recent survey found that starting up a PDP
programme in a department typically costs between £2,200 and £11,000 (Ward, 2001).
Innovation: This pilot project broke new ground within the institution it was situated. A new style of PDP was
invented, linked to professional requirements. It was especially tailored for postgraduates and was not as
prescriptive as some operating in other institutions. Linking the process to career development activities was
also critical for the project’s success and broke new ground within the institution.
Participation rate: Just under half of all students have filled in the forms and the evaluation questionnaire,
although it is hoped that more might be completed in future. Although a higher number would be desirable, this
is much higher than a previous attempt at something similar several years ago that received a poor response.
The pilot was useful in gathering ideas to encourage participation in future.
At the end of the academic year, students filled in an evaluation questionnaire; eighteen have been returned.
Appendix 1 of this report summarises the student responses.
Most students found the form a bit difficult, taking between one and three hours to fill in. Difficulties that might
be addressed in revisions and future explanations were mainly about the length and overlapping nature of some
of the categories. Even trying to shorten and simplify the form as much as possible, there were a number of
calls to do this more. The rating system was also a bit unclear to some, as well as issues to do with values rather
than skills. It was clear that most students had an easier time reflecting about what they had already achieved as
opposed to plans for the future.
Students thought the process beneficial, helping them to reflect on their learning and what they enjoy, as well as
their levels of achievement and plans. Another benefit was the integration of work experience and academic
learning. In summary, the theoretical aims of PDPs were backed up by student feedback. The only surprise
was that not more found them useful in job applications and interviews, but that was probably because most
students weren’t applying for jobs when they completed the forms. The purpose of the plan was clear to the vast
majority and most did not experience any barriers; of those that did, time was the greatest and a few thought the
form could be clarified in places. The great majority did not want the plan assessed; half wanted the chance to
discuss it with their year tutor and half wanted the plan to form part of a module as opposed to something
outside the course curriculum. Seminars facilitated the process, as well as knowing it was a RTPI requirement
and seeing it helpful for job applications. The explanatory cover sheet was also very useful. Students who had
completed some form of PDP at work were familiar with the process, which promoted understanding. However,
there may be a danger with students doing a different form of PDP at work and not realising that the university
one has a different slant. Most students preferred a computer-based system as easy to update, but six still
wanted paper copies. The cover sheet explaining the purpose was important in helping students fill it in. Part-
time students found it successful in integrating work with education; most of them were used to doing
something similar at work. The majority had not yet changed anything on the basis of the plan, but four had,
including help with job interviews, increased awareness of future expectations, and a heightened sense of
strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
The response has been encouraging, with no one dismissing the usefulness of PDPs, but there is still an issue
about getting students to fill it out. The responses confirm the importance of getting the process right. For staff,
there is still an issue of how to use these in tutorials, which takes time. Feedback is important, which also takes
time, and staff development is needed so that they have the capability of assessing the forms, which are of a
different nature to most academic assessments.
Given the success of the project, the author proposes to continue with the PDP system as described in this case
study, making the following improvements:
1. The nature and purpose of personal development planning should inform the current curriculum review.
The PDP process should be embedded in the curriculum in modules throughout the course where career
development comes into play. If the course is working well, students should be informally reflecting on
their development, but weaving a more formal and structured PDP into the curriculum brings these
processes into consciousness, making them explicit and the learning purposeful. Comments on the
individual PDPs themselves will be studied because they give a useful insight into student aims and
aspirations and feedback about what educational aims are being met or not. The forms provide useful
feedback for staff that should inform wider curriculum development in an iterative way.
2. PDPs should be introduced and revisited in appropriate modules, from the start to the end of the course.
Where possible, they should form part of the assessment for a module and be used in individual tutorials
with year tutors/dissertation supervisors.
3. The form should be revisited and opportunities taken to synthesise the knowledge/skills/values lists to
shorten, simplify and clarify the detailed elements.
4. An exemplar form should be provided to help guide students.
5. Classes and seminars should discuss and explain the forms, linking them to career development and
professional issues. The purpose and value of the process should be made clear to students and
improvements continually sought through feedback. The rating system could be more clearly explained.
6. Staff development events should help convince the wider staff group of the value of the process. Staff need
more guidance on how to give feedback on completed forms.
Key issues for good practice
Based on the author’s research into how PDPs are operating elsewhere and her own experience of the Edinburgh
pilot, this section summarises key findings in a way that highlights good practice guidance.
1. Encouraging student participation: To have any real effect, students must take PDPs seriously and be
encouraged to participate in the process, as student learning and reflection lie at the very heart of the
concept. If PDPs are not firmly embedded in the culture, they will probably be seen as just another form to
fill in or another hurdle to jump. There is evidence that if the process is half-hearted, it probably won’t
work. It is important to explain to students clearly the purpose of PDPs so that students see the potential
benefits in both the short and long term, including links to getting jobs, professional entry requirements and
CPD. Embedding the system in the curriculum right from the start and at different stages, perhaps as part of
modules, is helpful in encouraging students to see it as an integral part of the course as opposed to
something extra. It may be possible to capture current reflective activities occurring in existing modules
and expand it into a wider PDP. It may also be helpful to explicitly discuss the nature of reflection in a way
that encourages students to think deeply and adopt good practice in this.
The system needs to be as simple and user-friendly as possible; there is evidence that students like
computer or web-based systems, which are much easier to update.
To assess or not to assess is an important question bringing out different views. Using PDPs as an assessed
part of a module is probably the best way to ensure participation. One possibility is to make it pass/fail,
because the nature of PDPs could make it difficult to assess in the traditional sense.
Getting the process right is as important as the content. PDPs have worked well when they have strong
links with professional development modules or seminars outside the formal curriculum. Using PDPs as a
focus for one-to-one tutorials with staff can be an important part of the process, used as a vehicle for
cementing the tutor relationship.
2. Ensuring staff participation and development : Clearly, some staff are keener than others to promote
PDPs and this is a critical issue. Some ‘champions’ within schools have not had an easy time convincing
hard-pressed colleagues of the merits of such schemes. It certainly helps to have local champions and
supportive senior management. Staff as well as students need to be convinced of the benefits of PDPs.
Some staff are clearly better equipped to support students in personal and professional development and
staff development support is critical in informing good practice. Where PDPs are assessed or used in some
way during tutorials, staff need to be clear how to guide students to improve, both in writing PDPs and in
suggesting ways to develop. Guidance on what constitutes good practice in completing PDPs is needed;
this seems sparse compared to other aspects of PDPs. It is important to develop a reflective culture
throughout the teaching and learning process; teachers need to be seen to be good role models in this.
Inevitably, there will be costs involved in setting up and administering PDP systems and budgets and time
allocations need to be realistic in recognition of the real costs involved.
3. Content: There is no right or wrong way to design PDP forms and they can be tailored to the needs of
individual stages, courses, schools and institutions. The key differences in content seem to be in the
prescriptiveness or openness of the knowledge, skills and values catalogued and in the way that levels are
specified or not. Difficulties in self-assessment can arise and clear guidance is essential. Students also can
find it hard to be specific about what they need to develop and how and may need to be guided to identify
and locate evidence to support their claims. Different models may be appropriate for undergraduates,
postgraduates and full or part-time students. The form should be appropriate for education , work
experience and transferable skills learned from outside activities. Explicit reference to professional
requirements can help students make links between education and practice and help motivate students to fill
them in. There is some evidence that the shorter and simpler the form, the more likely it is to get
completed. There was evidence of improved content resulting from student and staff consultation.
PDPs can be effective tools in helping students to reflect and record their learning and achievements in a
structured manner and to plan their future personal and professional development. PDPs can be effective in
integrating academic and work-based learning and include outside activities and transferable as well as more
technical skills. The process can encourage deep reflection and lifelong learning habits and provide a focus for
tutor interaction and institutional support. In the built environment sector, PDP or similar have been adopted by
the relevant professional institutes as requirements, both for initial full membership and for continuing
professional development. They are therefore potentially very important tools within the subject sector for
forging links between education and practice, focused on individual students .
There is no set form a PDP should take; existing models vary in the openness or prescriptive nature of their
questions and knowledge/skills lists. Different models might be more appropriate for undergraduates or
postgraduates and can be tailored to needs of stages and courses. To maximise effectiveness, forms need to be
carefully crafted and will no doubt benefit from student and staff consultation and piloting. Computer or web-
based systems are easier to update, which is crucial to the concept. Forms should be as simple and short as
possible. Emphasis should be on the individual; part-time students should be encouraged to see them as tools to
synthesise education and practice and they should be suitable for work-based learning records. Knowledge and
skills components can be derived from professional bodies’ requirements and/or subject benchmarks.
Getting the process right is probably even more important than getting the content right. Deep learning habits
are more likely to occur if PDP as an iterative process is embedded as an integral component of the culture of
courses and schools and not seen as just another form to fill out. Students need to be convinced of the value
they potentially offer, both in the short and long run, in terms of personal and professional development. Links
with professional development requirements and career goals need to be made explicit. Students need feedback
on their forms and PDPs can be successful in providing a focus for individual tutorials. PDPs don’t need to be
formally assessed, but getting students to fill them out can be very difficult; making them a compulsory part of
the course by being credit bearing is likely to ensure participation. They might well be tied to activities within
certain modules, linked to learning outcomes or with career development activities. The process might even be
central to guiding curriculum changes. The nature of reflection could be explored with students and examplar
PDPs distributed to enhance good practice. Staff as well as students must be convinced of the value of PDPs
and resistance amongst staff has been perhaps an even greater problem than amongst students. Staff
development is crucial because it cannot be assumed that everyone is well geared up to implement the systems.
Costs and resources need to be realistically set; there is no doubt that setting systems in place and properly
maintaining them incur significant costs in terms of time in work programmes, staff development and IT
Lastly, it cannot be over-emphasised enough that if PDPs are going to really make a difference to student
learning, they must not be seen with what Norman Jackson calls a ‘piece of paper mindset’ or they are a waste
of valuable time, a meaningless bureaucratic exercise (see Jackson, 2002). PDPs can only ever be a tool and not
an end in themselves. If successful, they are a vehicle for the process of continual deep learning and reflection
undertaken in a way that, again, is not an end in itself but a focus for future effort. This deep reflection can only
really be promoted by the culture of teaching and deep learning within departments and staff have a key role in
this, both in how and what they teach and by being role models themselves.
List of references
Higgins, Marilyn (2002) Personal Development Planning in the Built Environment, Centre for Education in the
Built Environment, Cardiff University (see website).
Jackson, N. (2001) Personal Development Planning: What Does it Mean?, PDP Working Paper 1, Learning
and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre.
Jackson, Norman (2002) Building Capacity to Support PDP: An Optimistic Vision of Large Scale and Complex
Change. Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre.
NCIHE (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society, Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into
Higher Education, HMSO.
Ward, R (2001) Illuminating the costs and benefits of implementing Progress Files within Higher Education.
Report to Universities UK, Standing Conference of Principals and the Learning and Teaching Support Network.
Appendix 1 : Student Evaluation of Pilot PDP System
Are you full-time or part-time? FT 9 PT 9
What year are you in? 1st 13 2nd 4 3rd 1
1. Did you attend either of the seminars where personal development plans were introduced? Please circle
one, none or both:
a. 5 Yes, I attended the first session on “What are employers looking for” with outside speakers and Nick
Thow where students afterwards did a pilot on the personal development plans
b. 3 Yes, I attended Nick Thow’s second session on CVs and interview skills when students started
filling in their plans on computers
If you attended the sessions, please comment on their helpfulness and make any suggestions on how they
might have been improved.
Good, informative. Helpful to see former student and employers in first seminar. Liked group work
in first seminar to fill out parts of PDP and give feedback.
2. Roughly how long did it take you to fill in the personal development plan?
1 hour – 5
2 hours – 3
3 hours – 5
4 hours - 2
3. Have you done a similar plan previously?
Yes 5 No 11
If yes, where? Previous or current employer, both planning and non-planning work.
4. How difficult was the plan to fill in?
a. Very difficult b. A bit difficult 12
c. Quite easy 4 d. Very easy
5. What aspects were hard for you to fill in or think about? Why?
Not sure what was required, to what degree
Sometimes hard to distinguish between the various skills, etc. elements – overlap
Harder to think about future than the past, including what’s coming on course
Values section most difficult
Rating hard – difference between how you see yourself and how others see you
Enjoyment rating difficult with limited experience
Want to know more about RTPI requirements
Hard to quantify experience
6. Having completed the plan, how beneficial do you feel this process is to you personally?
a. Very beneficial 3 b. Somewhat beneficial 12 c. Not helpful 0
7. What benefits do you think the process has brought about? Please circle as many as you want.
a. Helped me take stock of what I’ve been learning at college 10
b. Helped me integrate education and work experience 7
c. Helped me plan what I need to develop personally in the future 8
d. Helped me reflect on the level of learning and/or experience I’ve achieved 7
e. Helped me reflect on what aspects of planning I really enjoy in a way that might help with career
Helped me articulate knowledge and skills in a way that will help with job applications/interviews 2
Also: showed me strengths and weaknesses 1 record training 1
8. Was the purpose of the plan clear to you?
Yes 15 No 2
9. Were there any barriers to completing the plan?
No 10 Yes 7 If yes, circle those that apply:
Didn’t see the point
Lack of clarity 3
10. How could the process of completing the form or the content be improved?
Simplify, trim overlapping areas
Introduce at beginning of year
Timetable into course
Shouldn’t be compulsory
Stress compulsory nature
Prefer multiple choice
Arrange seminars for part-timers
Explain values/ethics better
Scoring system tricky
11. Would you be more likely to fill in the form if it were part of a module rather than something outside of the
Yes 7 No 7
Would you wish the plan to be assessed?
Yes 2 No 14
12. Would you like the chance to discuss the plan with your year tutor?
a. Yes 8 b. No 8
13. What were the aspects that facilitated filling in the plan? Circle as many as you want:
a. Seminars explaining the purpose 3
b. Cover sheet explaining the purpose and giving instructions 9
c. Hearing from employers about the benefits of thinking in this way 2
d. Seeing connection with job applications and interviews 7
e. Knowing that this was required by RTPI 10
Having experience of other personal development plans or staff appraisals 7
14. Have you changed anything in response to your own evaluation?
a. No 11 b. Yes. If yes, what? 4 Helped with interviews. More aware of next year’s
expectations. Shown where I need to focus more. More aware strengths and weaknesses, likes and
15. Would you prefer a system
a. Paper-based 6 b. Web-based 4 c. Computer file 7
16. Any other comments:
Make sure students understand benefits
Felt a bit like an exam – prefer multiple choice
Clear wording needed
Good for reflection, harder for future
Feedback would motivate and help me think
Not sure relevance if I do at work
Useful to part and full-time students in different ways – will help me with interviews
Appendix 2: Personal Development Plan Pilot used by postgraduate planning
students, Edinburgh College of Art/Heriot-Watt University 2001/02
What is it?
Personal development planning (PDP) is a structured and supported process undertaken by an
individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan their
personal, educational and career development.
Why do it?
The primary objective for PDP is to improve the capacity of individuals to understand what and how
they are learning, and to review, plan and take responsibility for their own learning, helping students
• articulate personal goals and evaluate progress towards their achievement;:
• become more effective, independent and confident self-directed learners;
• understand how they are learning and relate their learning to a wider context;
• improve their general skills for study, career management and marketing themselves to
• take a positive attitude to learning throughout life, educational and career development
The RTPI requires you to submit a professional development plan when you apply for membership
and to update this regularly throughout your career.
How it works
Personal development planning is essentially a process of:
1. Thinking about where you are now, what you like/dislike, reflecting on your strengths and
improvements you would like to achieve
2. Planning where you want to get to, what skills and knowledge you will need to develop and how
you will acquire them via learning opportunities open to you
3. Doing – putting your action plan into practice; recording the development you make; identifying
when you have reached a goal
4. Reflecting on your learning and achievement and, in the light of this, where you want to go next
(and so the cycle begins again)
Rating Your Skills
Column 1 is a listing of the key knowledge/skills /values the RTPI has proposed as being essential for
a planning graduate in order to be effective.
Column 2: list your evidence of when you have demonstrated this knowledge/skill /value. This could
be drawn from your previous study, work experience or leisure pursuits. Remember most of the
personal skills such as teamworking are deemed to be transferable from one situation to another. So,
for example, if you worked effectively as part of a team in a bar job, it is likely that you would be able
to reproduce the skills demonstrated then in your professional role as a planner. For some of the skills
you will need to break the main heading down into a sub-set of skills e.g. “ people and organisational
management and leadership skills” could include: goal setting, strategy development, delegating,
listening, time management, dealing with people and managing conflict
Column 3: assess your current level of competency for each knowledge/skill/value, on a scale of 1
(requires development) to 5 (highly competent), in terms of what might be expected at this stage.
Column 4: for each knowledge/skill /value you have rated below (5), please describe when and how
you will develop it e.g. through a specific module or planned work experience. Be as specific as
possible both in terms of defining and describing the skill and in your time schedule for achieving it.
Column 5: please reflect on how much you enjoy using each particular knowledge/skill /value and
what implication this may have on your future career direction
It’s fine to leave a box empty if something has not yet been covered!