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Personal development planning and law

Sue Prince (University of Exeter), co-ordinator of the UKCLE PDP working group, compiled this position paper on personal development planning (PDP) and law in 2002. She concludes that PDP underpins the learning process and therefore pretty well everything that law tutors do when trying to ensure that their students receive a comprehensive legal education. Comments welcome – contact Sue Prince (e-mail:

The Dearing Report (1997) recommended that students should be encouraged to develop “a means by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development”. Personal development planning (PDP) is defined 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.”

(See the Quality Assurance Agency’s Guidelines for HE progress files, 2000).

It is intended that PDP will help students:

  1. Become more effective, independent and confident self-directed learners.
  2. Understand how they are learning and relate their learning to a wider context.
  3. Improve their general skills for study and career management.
    Articulate their personal goals and evaluate progress towards their achievement.
  4. Encourage a positive attitude to learning throughout life.

(Taken from the Quality Assurance Agency’s Recommendations for policy on PDP, 2000).

It is consistently argued that the introduction of progress files or other methods of incorporating personal development planning into higher education would make student learning outcomes more explicit, thereby improving the quality of learning. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has set the date of the 2005-06 academic year for the minimum expectations for PDP to be in place in each higher education institution.

These minimum expectations are that:

  • students will be introduced to the opportunities for PDP at the start of their programme
  • students will be provided with opportunities for PDP at each stage of their programme
  • the rationale for PDP at different stages of a programme will be explained for the benefit of students
  • the nature and scope of opportunities for PDP, the recording and support strategies will be determined by each institution

(Taken from the Quality Assurance Agency’s Guidelines for HE progress files, 2000).

It is anticipated that students will have participated in PDP in a range of learning contexts. These include extra-curricula experiences, such as different types of student representative and work experience, as well as formal opportunities in the higher education curriculum. It is therefore clear that it the intention is that PDP is a mainstream academic process rather than an add-on.

The outcome of all of the above is that institutions which offer legal education and those working in institutions who are directly associated with the provision of legal education will need to consider their position in relation to the development of PDP within their own programmes of study.

This working paper offers some suggestions about the relationship between PDP and law. These suggestions are supported with examples of how PDP is currently included within the law curriculum at the School of Law at the University of Exeter. It provides some answers to questions originally asked by the UK Centre for Legal Education. It is hoped that this will encourage discussion and criticism, invite further examples of practice and engage members of the UKCLE PDP working group.

The questions at the centre of this paper are as follows:

  • is there a clear link between the definition and aims of PDP and the law degree?
  • how is PDP being used in legal education at the moment and for what purposes (as a tool to provide evidence of the acquisition of skills and competence or as a reflective tool to advance learning)?
  • what aspects of the law benchmarks relate to PDP, and how can PDP be used to support the implementation and facilitation of the requirements of the benchmark statements?
  • what use is made of PDP in supporting work placement and the transition to professional education?
  • how can the working group and UKCLE best support the legal education community in developing PDP?

Is there a clear link between the definition and aims of PDP and the law degree?

The definition of PDP provided above is very broad and loosely defined. The purpose of PDP generally is to enhance the individual’s learning experience and enable him or her to pursue learning throughout their life. These are broad and aspirational aims. The ACLEC Report (1996, para 4.4) stated that a law degree course aims to develop “intellectual integrity and independence of mind”. The aim of PDP is to encourage students to become more confident and independent learners. There does not appear to be an immediate conflict between these aims.

The QAA cites two main learning outcomes for PDP:

  • Enhanced self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses and directions for change student development as a whole person.
  • Record of learning experiences and achievement, personal reflections and plans for self-improvement (personal records) that provide a unique resource to each individual.

PDP builds on many higher education initiatives, such as key and personal skills development, in order to encourage students to think about how and what they are learning so that they can apply this knowledge of themselves to all aspects of their own development. If the use of PDP can encourage students to be more confident and independent in their learning they should be better able to fulfil this general requirement of what has been called a liberal legal education:

“A liberal legal education will have as an aim that students should not merely know or know how to understand why things are as they are and how they could be different…[it is] about a ‘deep’ approach to a subject, in which students try to relate ideas in one subject to those in others, to understand what they read, questioning material, making links, pursuing lines of enquiry out of interest.

(Prof Dawn Oliver, ‘Teaching and learning law: pressures on the liberal law degree’ in Birks (ed) Reviewing legal education, Oxford 1994, at 78 (cited in the ACLEC Report 1996))

It will be argued that many of the requirements of PDP are already a major part of most law degrees and legal education generally. The difference is that the new requirement is that the development of PDP is made explicit in learning outcomes, module descriptors and programme specifications and also made directly explicit to students. This could be through the use of particular teaching and learning techniques, such as peer or self evaluation (to fulfil learning outcome 1 for PDP) or the use of learning logs or portfolios (to fulfil learning outcome 2). Learning logs are described by the QAA as ‘progress files’.

The crucial aspect for law schools is that the PDP process must be ‘structured and supported’. Tutors will therefore need to reflect upon the ways that students learn and how the methods used to achieve relevant learning outcomes can be made more explicit and structured.

A couple of examples used in the School of Law at Exeter:

  • personal tutor system: in the past students were allocated a personal tutor whom they could call on if they required. There was a suggestion made to new first year students that they should see their personal tutor once a term. Students are now required to complete a new ‘termly evaluation summary’, which asks them to record their experience of the term against a variety of skills headings. They are asked to discuss areas in which they feel they are strong and also areas which they need to develop. This summary can then be used as the basis for termly personal tutor meetings so that both student and tutor can contribute to a structured and constructive dialogue on the student’s personal development.
  • PESCA: the University of Exeter has in place a Web-based student profiling tool for the recording of student achievement, goals and skills. It asks students to record their development and reflect upon five key areas: personal, employment, social, career and academic, and encourages them to see that reflecting upon their skills in all of these areas can help them to develop as a person. It is a tool to encourage students to record their achievements, skills and goals, to provide evidence of their development and to assist them to analyse and evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses in each of the specified areas. Although records are created within each of the personal, employment, social, career and academic categories, because PESCA is a database system it can easily create different ways of reporting the information it holds. Therefore students can generate their own curriculum vitaes, action plans and career plans which can be shown to careers advisors. PESCA is available to all law students through the School of Law website.

How is PDP being used in legal education at the moment and for what purposes?

Academic staff are always encouraging students to be independent in relation to their intellectual studies. Much of the work encouraged by PDP has been a traditional aspect of higher education, and consequently forms part of a law degree. Tutors encourage independence in they following ways:

  • by encouraging students to be critically aware when they approach all aspects of the law and legal studies
  • by providing students with written feedback in relation to formative course work, which encourages students to analyse and reflect upon their own development

A structured and supported PDP process can usually be seen in discussion-based seminars. In these seminars tutors act as facilitators, asking questions and requiring students to see aspects of legal problems from a variety of perspectives. Tutors would normally respond to student input with feedback, encouraging them to make new connections and to clarify their ideas and analyses.

The clear difference between the process described above and what is anticipated by the QAA is that PDP should be made more explicit, so that students are clear as to when the process is taking place. This could be through the use of student portfolios or logs, which students use to record and monitor their development and then reflect upon how this applies to other aspects of their learning.

An example of the PDP process being used in this way is demonstrated by students studying the introduction to law module at the University of Exeter, who are asked to work collaboratively on a group project forming 20% of the assessment for the module. The students are given two terms to work on the project before they are required to submit it.

Students are required to attend a one day team development programme, where they meet the other members of their group and learn how to develop a clear process to enable them to work together effectively. They are given a project to undertake together. The project usually entails writing a leaflet aimed at a particular group in society, which they are to select themselves, providing information and advice about a key aspect of legal provision, which they have designated to them by their tutor.

Past examples of project topics have been legal aid and alternative dispute resolution. Students are required to attend court or speak to relevant personnel and to accompany their leaflet with a reflective report, explaining why and how they achieved the leaflet they did and how they organised themselves to work together. Marks for the projects are allocated on the basis of legal knowledge, analysis and reflection upon both the law and the ability of the group to organise themselves. This includes some analysis of how they changed and adjusted their own organisation skills, depending upon what they were trying to achieve and the difficulties they encountered during the life of the project.

In relation to PDP students are encouraged to develop their analytical and teamwork skills. They are also required to reflect upon their development. The importance shown to the process is demonstrated to students because this is an assessed part of the first year of their degree programme. Feedback from students is very positive both in regard to the teamwork course and the group project. The results produced by the task are usually interesting, critical and innovative.

What aspects of the law benchmarks relate to PDP and how can PDP be used to support the implementation and facilitation of the requirements of the benchmark statements?

The benchmarks were designed to offer a source of reference for articulating learning outcomes and performance criteria associated with an academic subject. The aim is that they provide a ‘reference point’ for those designing and implementing programmes and modules of study. They point to the standards required for students to reach in different disciplines in order to be awarded a higher education degree. The law benchmarks were written by Professor John Bell of the University of Leeds in 1998. There was a long period of consultation leading up to the final publication of the benchmarks. The benchmarks represent a threshold statement set at the bottom of a third class honours degree. They therefore reflect the minimum achievement a student should be able to demonstrate before being awarded an honours degree in law. They are divided into three aspects of performance: subject-specific abilities, general transferable intellectual skills and key skills.

Subject-specific abilities

Students should be able to demonstrate a “basic knowledge and understanding of the principal features of the legal system” they are studying. They should be able to apply this knowledge and problem-solve. They should be able to demonstrate a basic ability to use sources and research in their studies.

  • knowledge – students are required to achieve an overview of the main features and ideas of a legal system, rather than comprehensive knowledge of every area of law. This is because there is an assumption of choice included in the study of law. For example, the benchmarks state that “students can be selective as to the areas in which they engage in detailed study”, and can choose which aspects to study within a framework established by their institution. Students make a number of choices throughout their studies, for example choosing a particular option to study. If students were asked to be more reflective over this choice and to record their reasons for choosing a module and how they felt, this would relate to their personal development, and there would be a clear link between this benchmark and PDP.
  • problem solving – the ability to plan, review and evaluate are inherent aspects of PDP, as are the skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The aim of PDP is to help students develop a coherent structured approach to different ways of problem-solving so that they can begin to understand why they do what they do to achieve positive results.

General transferable intellectual skills

Students should be able to demonstrate basic abilities of analysis, synthesis, critical judgement and evaluation. They should, with limited guidance, be autonomous and demonstrate their ability to learn; one aspect of this being an ability to reflect on his or her own learning.

Examples of links between this benchmark and PDP:

  • it could be argued that making critical and analytical judgements requires understanding of a subject and various perspectives surrounding that subject. It requires quite high levels of cognitive reasoning. Underpinning this is a reflective attitude on the part of the student to reason creatively, be positive and confident in making judgements and having the ability to challenge an argument and be able to justify the reasons for that challenge. PDP involves looking at the processes underlying this analysis to show students how they as an individual learn and develop and how they can articulate their own learning processes to give them confidence when making critical judgements.
  • the link is clear when the benchmarks requires a demonstration of a students’ ability to reflect on his or her own learning. The requirements of PDP are that this process should be made explicit and it is up to tutors to determine how best to achieve this.

Key skills

Students should be able to demonstrate communication and literacy skills and use, where relevant, the skills of numeracy, information technology and teamwork.

The link between PDP and key skills is that both are aimed at helping students prepare for their future by encouraging them to develop the sorts of skills which are useful academically and in their future career, and to see the links for themselves. The process of learning skills in a variety of different contexts is integral to both key skills and PDP.

Recording systems such as PESCA help students to make links between their personal, career and academic development

What use is made of PDP in supporting work placement and the transition to professional education?

The School of Law at the University of Exeter offers students a work experience option. The aims of the option are not to see which student can get the best work experience or how well they are marked on their work experience by employers, but to encourage students to reflect on the experience to help them better understand their learning of law and how they wish to develop for the future. Students are given workshops and a learning portfolio and told that the portfolio will:

“…help you to think about what you are doing in a more systematic way so that you can become more confident in knowing what you need to do, more effective in doing it and better able to assess how well you are succeeding. This will help you to be more efficient and successful with your university studies. It will enable you to write more articulate applications for jobs; help you in job interviews by enabling you to discuss your skills and experiences; and allow you to cope more effectively with your first graduate employment.”

Students are assessed on the level of their reflection and the links they make to law and legal studies in their portfolio, and in a short oral presentation summarising their own development. Students value the work experience itself, the ability to think about their learning and being forced to give an oral presentation. Although currently anecdotal, the general feedback is that the experience does help students to build up their levels of confidence.

How can the working group and UKCLE best support the legal education community in developing PDP?

Whilst it has been argued that many of the requirements made by PDP are already in place in law schools, the main difference is that students and law school staff will need to be able to articulate where and how PDP is happening. This has implications for developmental work which can be supported by UKCLE. Some suggestions for possible areas of support are:

  • staff development
  • course design
  • dissemination of good practice
  • funding to support initiatives in PDP developmental work
  • providing clear links between employability and legal education

Last Modified: 4 June 2010