Reproduced with permission from the Bulletin of the British Association for Romantic Studies, no. 19, May 2001.
A set of guidelines was published in February
by the Quality Assurance Agency to facilitate the implementation of progress
files. While the relevance of such records has been perceived primarily
in relation to undergraduate learning, a properly implemented system could
yield substantial benefit for postgraduates. Indeed, responding to
the QAA's policy statement on progress files, the National Postgraduate
Committee welcomed them as an "exciting" "opportunity for developing independent,
empowered learning in a serious and supportive manner."
So what role can progress files play in the postgraduate world? A way to answer this question is to think about postgraduate needs. Dearing's only recommendation for postgraduate research was to include the development of professional skills in research training. It is clear too, that QAA's guidelines overlook postgraduate needs, for QAA acknowledges that postgraduate progress files warrant separate consideration. Students need progress files to record their learning experiences in a meaningful way. Complementing the development of key skills with progress files can make graduate learning processes more easily identifiable and quantifiable. Obviously this benefits both fileholders and others who are permitted access to them. Under current QAA guidelines, progress files include very little that seems useful or indicative of reflective learning at postgraduate level, only specifying detailed requirements for the "paper-trail" (or "transcript") of the course followed, and not the Personal Development Planning part. Real progress could be made if QAA guidelines addressed practical facilitation, such as suggesting the minimum frequency of progress reviews or successful strategies for evaluating student progress. The records could then incorporate greater continuity into individual self-appraisal, while visibly embedding the value of progress files in the wider context of departmental and institutional "best practice."
Essentially, progress files should contain a working portfolio of any professional development, alongside the record of learning and research progress in order for the postgraduate define his or her input into the academic community. Opportunities for postgraduates and institutions to devise the content of these files show a profession responding to the practice of reflective learning. Under current pressures, however, it is difficult to see how the necessary support structures, crucial to the success of the initiative, can be provided. So where does that leave us? Naturally, research students do endeavour to take responsibility for their own learning and expect to manage their work themselves. If this were all that a PhD were about, then progress files would record little. The trick is to make them meaningful, in a way that postgraduates value.
It seems that postgraduates do not value progress files because the files do not coincide with the postgraduate's own markers for measuring progress. A further problem is the perception that progress files are only implemented to improve quality assurance. QAA's guidelines are careful to welcome the quality assurance aspect in tandem with the personal benefit reaped by the individual. This coupling could affect implementation by skewing the emphasis towards quality ratings and away from student development and achievement. Until the philosophies underpinning progress files are accepted without a cynical nod to quality, progress files themselves will not be taken seriously.
On the whole, postgraduates seem to welcome the potential help that progress files promise. They are perceived as a useful mechanism to identify problems, particularly with supervision, or with managing the research project itself. However, disadvantages identified by postgraduates who are currently maintaining progress files, are that they are time-consuming, labour-intensive and half-heartedly implemented, with little follow-up evaluation from the institution. Such files rapidly fall into disuse because the value of the files is not clearly apparent either to postgraduates or the institution.
Dearing's legacy of reflective learning and professional development has a potential that can be harnessed by postgraduate students to participate in an appraisal not just of themselves, but of institutional input into their PhD. Research students probably exercise significant competence in the areas progress files are expected to develop: "effective, independent, self-directed" learning; relating their learning to a wider context; improving "general skills of study and career management;" articulating "personal goals" and evaluating "progress towards achievement." An important element of progress reviews for postgraduate students, then, would be evaluating the department's role in facilitating progress. Postgraduate expansion has meant more choice than ever before on taught courses, but once on the research track, the visibility and activity of support structures can rapidly decline, leaving the voice of research students barely audible. Doubtless current funding and time pressures on postgraduate students means that they have little energy to devote to these wider, but still vitally important, issues. Postgraduates must make themselves heard, and put their own issues on the Higher Education agenda. Progress files, with the right kinds of support in implementation, are a real opportunity to change postgraduate learning. Not only can they document the achievements of the PhD student, but they can help postgraduates define themselves in relation to their chosen profession, and understand how best to communicate their work and skills to the wider community.
This report was compiled using the following sources:
Higher Education Digest Special Issue (Autumn 2000), Key Skills
in Higher Education' and 'Recording Achievement', pp. 5-7
Higher Education Digest 37 (Summer 2000), p. 7
I would also like to thank subscribers, of all disciplines, to the NPC's
Postgrad mailbase who kindly shared their opinions and ideas about progress