There may be strong correlation between graduate outcomes and personal development - yet personal development is often approached as a ‘bolt-on’ that students are expected to pick up naturally, and frequently viewed as a self-contained and individual activity.
My view is personal development should not sit in a vacuum, and to develop one’s own needs, there warrants an acute awareness of understanding others, the context of one’s own natural environment and a measure of progress.
In my school, I saw substantial value in connecting students in their own peer groups to discuss their professional development, work together in supporting each other on a range of employability activities, and identifying opportunities and sharing ambitions.
This was a move away from a somewhat inward-looking self-evaluation log that students were meant to complete after each of their tutor meetings. This was based on a series of rather lacklustre formative questions (which were perhaps typical of many in the sector).
Why a peer support approach?
Personal development journeys rely deeply on students being able to develop their own self-awareness and positive self-identify. However, in my own discipline at Kingston University, 85% of students identify as ethnically diverse (Asian, Black and mixed race) whereas most tutors are White.
This has potential for societal stereotypes to form based on unconscious tutee expectations. Could this mean individual identities and experiences play out in unanticipated outcomes that shape tutor engagement and longer-term attitudes towards personal development? Should personal tutors be viewed as gurus in facilitating personal development?
My own analysis revealed of students, who engaged formatively with their tutor-led personal development (between 2019-2021) around 75% were consistently White and only 51% and 53% of Black or other mixed race. This was concerning and highlighted real differential issues in engagement. The effectiveness and consistency in perceived value and support gained from tutors can be variable and dependent on the success of focalised relationships.
To me, it was clear transformation was required towards a more inclusive, supportive, and collaborative approach to personal development.
How was this achieved?
By developing fresh ways of building affinities between peers, tutors and the wider university support community through seamless integration and dialogue involving tutees, tutors, module teaching staff, the curriculum, careers and employability, and student enrichment.
To do this, we designed a year-long personal development curriculum with an integral co-strand of central support co-delivered by our student enrichment and careers and employability teams.
By establishing a supportive peer learning network linked directly with the curriculum. This recognised the need to establish earlier and more inclusive connections between peers to encourage peer support/dialogue, rapport, greater sense of purpose/identity and a more positive transition/learning environment.
The value of students being able to support each other and share their learning journey should not be underestimated - "The support provided by my peer group has made a valuable addition to my studies and improved my sense of belonging to the University." Student.
Inclusive activities to develop autonomy and evidence skills
Relevance, context and meaning and a measure of learning gain all needed to be considered. We empowered peer support teams to collaborate, engage and reflect on a range of employability tasks/activities (‘learning from their experiences’) taking ownership in making decisions to their activities undertaken and researched.
Incorporating ‘design thinking’ into the learning outcomes has facilitated this process along with summative employability metrics to inform both students and tutors to where interventions or support may be required.
These changes have created opportunities for students to practice their graduate attributes and skills through active learning together. Guaranteed scenarios to identify, evidence and articulate their ambitions and skills; all within an environment to nurture positive feelings and encourage peer support.
After introducing peer supported personal development, we evidenced increased overall engagement, which closed an existing 25% engagement gap between Black/mixed-race and White students.
Do you have experience or thoughts on peer supported personal development?
Nigel Page is Director of Learning and Teaching for the Life Sciences, Pharmacy and Chemistry at Kingston University London, where he has developed innovations in personal development, employability, and enterprise benefiting his students. Nigel has presented at several conferences and been shortlisted for national employability awards.
Case Study Compendium: Contemporary Practices and Initiatives in Employability
The development of an inclusive and collaborative programme to support, encourage and embrace Black diversity in industry by Nigel Page, Amanda Baker, Zion Sengulay-Thomas, Martina Mador and Jacqui Piner is a case study included in the 2023 Advance HE Case Study Compendium: Contemporary Practices and Initiatives in Employability. Advance HE members can download it here.
Employability Symposium 2023
Join us at the Employability Symposium 2023 as we bring people together to support professional development. Learn more: Employability Symposium 2023: Lighting the Labyrinth: Enhancing Student Success through the 3Es