Personal Development

Published January 2022

Our curriculum will enable students to reflect on their values. They will become self-aware, take initiative, and take ownership of their learning. Students will develop resilience, welcome openness, and be able to learn from failure. They will flourish through carefully scaffolded learning, and through developing solid pedagogic and peer relationships. Students will feel equipped for work and life beyond university through our curriculum.

The argument has long been made that higher education is not just about accumulating knowledge on a specific subject but is as much about the ways it develops students and empowers them to engage with a fluid and uncertain world (Arvanitakis and Hornsby, 2016).

Some argue the emphasis on personal development is a strand of the wider employability agenda where focus on developing ‘enlightened students’ has shifted to developing workplace ready ‘automonous / self-directed / flexible lifelong learners’ (Clegg 2006, p58). Others see it as fundamental to the purpose of universities (Tyler 1989, cited in Jones 2007) or an inevitable consequence of higher education study (Collini, 2015).

Broadly speaking, personal development refers to the ways students develop skills and attributes that support their academic progress and/or their capacity to be successful in their career (Gough et al 2003, Clegg 2006; Fry et al, 2002). But beyond that it also concerns the ways a student’s identity, their sense of who they are and how they think, may evolve in response to their experiences both within and beyond the university’s curriculum (Barnett, 2009).

The skills and attributes of a graduate of the University of Bristol are articulated through the Bristol Skills Framework, and the role of personal tutors in supporting students’ reflection on their skills’ development is also considered important at Bristol.

What this means for curriculum design

Ron Barnett (2009) discusses the relationship between acquiring knowledge and personal development, suggesting that ‘the process of coming to know has person forming qualities’ (p435) It is in the relationship between the curriculum and the way it is taught (the pedagogy) where students’ personal development flourishes. He proposes 10 general principles for how a curriculum can nurture desirable qualities and dispositions in students. For Barnett, a curriculum should:

  • be sufficiently demanding to encourage ‘resilience’;
  • offer contrasting insights and perspectives so that ‘openness’ can develop;
  • require a continual presence and commitment from students to nurture ‘self-discipline’;
  • contain sufficient space for students to develop ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’.

Then, in terms of how the curriculum is delivered, the pedagogy should:

  • require students to engage with each other such that ‘respect for others’, ‘generosity’, and ‘a preparedness to listen’ is encouraged;
  • make explicit the relevant standards such that ‘carefulness’ and ‘restraint’ might ensue;
  • be encouraging, so that students develop the ‘preparedness to keep going forward’ and ‘hold themselves out to new experiences’;
  • enthuse students, encouraging their ‘will to learn’;
  • require students to put forward their own proffering’s in order that the ‘courage’ to take up a position and stake a claim might be developed;
  • require students to give of themselves and be active in and towards the situations that they find themselves in and so develop a ‘will to engage’.

Moon (1999) and Hinett (2001) argue a key driver for personal development  is self-reflection: the ability to make sense of our experiences, explore our feelings, question our choices and become more effective in the things we do. In terms of curriculum design, it’s important to give students time to stop and think, and opportunities to reflect on not just what they are learning, but how and why they are learning it.  Moon (2001) and Hinett (2001) suggest some methods for integrating reflection into the curriculum such as:

  • journals, blogs or podcasts;
  • (e)portfolios;
  • peer and self-assessment;
  • reflecting on specific experiences such as a work placement or field trip;
  • action learning sets;
  • problem based learning.

Moon (2001) also cautions that not all students will find reflection easy or understand what is being asked of them, so it is important to provide models to help them structure their reflective thinking. It’s worth taking some time to explore the numerous models for reflection that have been developed over the years. For example, in this online course developed by the university, students can explore how Kolb’s experiential learning model can provide a meaningful structure.

Think about the extent to which reflection should be articulated in your intending learning outcomes, as encouraged in QAA subject benchmarks. Edinburgh University’s Reflection toolkit provides guidance on developing criteria to help you assess students’ reflective writing.

What does this look like in practice?

Personal development case studies


Accounting & Finance
Dr Stuart Cooper &  Kathleen Kruiniger 
Encouraging skills, reflection and career thinking in first-year students Accounting and Finance in Context
Case study reflecting on a first-year unit focused on developing employability skills for Accounting and Finance students.
Available at:
Anthropology & Archaeology
Dr Tamar Hodos &  Amy Haines
Developing Archaeology students’ professional skills in partnership with Bristol Museum 
Case study reflecting on a second year unit focused on developing employability skills for Anthropology & Archaeology students.
Available at:
Dr Chris Adams
Career exploration in first-year Chemistry tutorials
Case study reflecting on a first year tutorials focused on developing employability skills for Chemistry students.
Available at:
Geographical Sciences
Dr Rachel Flecker & Hannah Tweddell
Investigating green space issues through real-world learning in Physical Geography
Case study reflecting on a first year unit involving real-world research for second year Geographical Sciences students.
Available at:
Dr James Norman
Authentic learning in an office environment for engineering students
Case study reflecting on a final year engineering unit focused on developing employability skills. Available at:
Dr Roman Schubert
Delivering personal tutorials through a disciplinary focused skills unit
In the School of Mathematics, first-year tutorial provision is delivered through the ‘Mathematical Investigations’ unit. During the tutorials, students work in smaller groups on projects that investigate a mathematical topic and discuss their progress with their personal tutor. The project briefs are designed to facilitate students’ transition to studying mathematics at HE. The structure of the tutorials also gives time for personal tutors to talk to individual tutees about their academic development and how they’re settling in. They also provide opportunities for students’ personal development and for them to look at exam preparation and employability.


Arvanitakis J., Hornsby D.J. (2016) ‘Are Universities Redundant?’. In: Arvanitakis J., Hornsby D.J. (eds) Universities, the Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education. Palgrave Critical University Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Barnett, R. (2009) Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum, Studies in Higher Education, 34:4, 429-440,

Brooks, R., Gupta, A., Jayadeva, S., Abrahams, J.(2020)  ‘Students’ views about the purpose of higher education: a comparative analysis of six European countries’, Higher Education Research and Development, available at:

Clegg, S., Bradley, S. (2006) ‘Models of personal development planning: practice and processes’ British Educational Research Journal, Vol 32(1) 57 – 76, Routledge.

Collini, S. ‘Defending Universities: Argument and Persuasion’ Power & Education, Vol. 7(1) 29–33 available at:

Fry, H., Davenport, E., Woodman, T. & Pee, B. (2002) ‘Developing progress files: a case study’ Teaching in Higher Education, 7(1), 97–111.

Gough, D. A., Kiwan, D., Sutcliffe, S., Simpson, D. & Houghton, N. (2003) ‘A systematic map and synthesis review of the effectiveness of personal development planning for improving student learning.’ Available at:

Hinett, K (2002) Improving learning through reflection – part two, York: The Higher Education Academy.

Moon, J. (1999) Reflection in Learning and Professional Development, London, Routledge.

Moon, J. (2001) PDP Working Paper 4: Reflection in Higher Education Learning, York: The Higher Education Academy.