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Personal and Professional Development

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Abstract

An account of the author’s experiences of a ‘personal and professional development’ module. The two main sections analyse the learning experience, and focus upon a particular area for self-development. The analysis of learning covers aspects of the module which were found useful, and why, and describes ideas such as Kolb’s ‘learning cycle’ which were used for the process of self assessment.

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It also covers negative and positive experiences of the module. The section on competence development focuses upon self-confidence, and sets out ways in which these can be improved. The author’s experience of the module overall is summarised.

1. Introduction

The following looks at my experience of the ‘personal and professional development’ module. Taking part in this module has been a significant learning experience for me. I thought initially that I had nothing to learn, and that I had already got an idea of how I wanted to progress in my career, and also a good understanding of my abilities and weaknesses. I felt I had a number of areas of weakness, particularly self-confidence and my susceptibility to stress. I didn’t believe that anything could be done about these, and felt they would always hold me back in my career. I had a less clear idea of my strengths. I also had little idea of my development needs, as I now see I had an unchallenged belief that it is not really possible to change or work on weak areas. Through taking part in the course (an experience which was initially challenging) I found out that I was wrong in lots of ways, particularly about what I am capable of, and also discovered that it is possible to make changes in areas of personal performance that are weak. I have been inspired and enthused by working through the module.I am better able to assess what I am good at, and what needs work, and now posses the tools to improve.

2. Analysis of learning

One aspect of the module which I found very useful was the learning journal.I would say that I both enjoyed it, but also found aspects of keeping it uncomfortable emotionally, as it made me confront aspects of my behaviour that I hadn’t been aware of, and which I wanted to change when I became aware of them. The concept was introduced in the module in a straightforward way, as a way of enhancing learning. I liked the idea that it did not have to be in a conventional format or written in academic English, but that it could contain notes, jottings and thoughts recorded in different ways such as diagrams (Moon 1999). I also liked the idea that it could be a way of expressing my personal feelings about my educational and career journey.Once the idea had been introduced I could see the potential of it as a way to reflect upon things which I had done or which happened to me. The actual process of writing down my reactions to situations was cathartic in itself, as it helped me express what I’d been feeling at the time, and I would usually feel calmer afterwards, if it had been a stressful incident for example.But it also allowed me to reflect upon the situation I’d recorded in my journal. I was able to read over the material I’d put in the journal a day or two later, and then I would write notes about what now felt about the situation. I used an idea by Kolb (1984), the ‘Reflective Cycle’ to understand this process. Kolb suggests that learning takes place through a cycle of thinking about experience, in four stages. First, a concrete experience forms the basis for reflection. This is just a description of events. This is followed by reflection and observation on the experience, thinking over what could have been done differently. This stage leads to the generation of theories or abstract ideas about how best to act in future, which prompt new actions and hence new experiences for reflection (Moon 2004).

For example, I initially found having to do any form of speaking to the module group extremely stressful. I was simply aware that I felt like running away when I had to give my opinion. I used my learning journal to write about this experience in great detail. I wrote down everything I could remember about the experience, and included diagrams of the class. It was fairly traumatic to write it down, as I realised I was physically affected by the situation, and had thoughts about being useless running through my head. A few days later, I read through it. I realised people had actually reacted well to my comments, and we had had an interesting debate about some of my ideas. I also realised that my physical stress symptoms had subsided once I started talking. I decided next time to remember how well things had gone, and say to myself ‘you are feeling a bit stressed, but it will pass’. I tried this out the next time I had to offer an opinion in class, and I felt much less worried, my physical symptoms were much less and I actually felt slightly excited. This convinced me how useful a tool the learning journal is.I was particularly surprised at the way something I had thought of as an academic discipline – writing – could be used as a tool for self expression, but more importantly that I could use the tool to make real changes to my feelings and behaviour.

As the learning journal was introduced in the early stages of the module, I found it also useful to assess my changing feelings to the module as it progressed. During the seven sessions, I noticed a real change in my attitudes and abilities. Initially, although I had an idea of how I wanted to develop in my career, I hadn’t really examined this in any detail, for example looking at my present skill set in realistic terms, comparing it with the skills needed to get on in my career. I also had a very fixed idea that success in my career would automatically bring me success in other aspects of my life, and the unrealistic idea that I would enjoy every minute of it.At the same time, I had very fixed ideas about what I saw as my failings. I considered I was someone who suffered a great deal from stress, and I felt it was holding me back. I thought there was nothing I could do to change my basic nature. I also had, I feel now, unrealistic ideas about my strengths. I tended to concentrate on my weaknesses and underplay the things I was good at. Overall, I would describe my position at the start of the module as ‘lacking in self-knowledge and unaware of the possibilities for change’.

Looking back, I can see that we were introduced to lots of useful tools in the early sessions. As mentioned above, I immediately took to the concept of the learning journal, and started to write down my feelings and experiences at once. However, it took a bit longer for all the other ideas to make sense to me. Overall, by around the third or fourth session, I was feeling very confused by the module. I could make academic sense of the ideas that we had covered, however, I struggled to work out how they could all be useful. I felt like I was overwhelmed by the information, and that I did not have the skills to use the tools properly. I see now that I was assuming a pessimistic view of what I was capable of. I assumed that I had a set of personality drawbacks that I was unable to change. However, at the time, I just felt as if I was struggling, and could not get to grips with the course as a whole. The learning journal helped me in particular situations, but initially not with the overall picture.I tried to persevere, and somewhere around the 5th session, I felt I had made a break through. I was conscientiously using my learning journal, writing down how I felt, both about particular issues and about the module as a whole. I started to find that I was going back to my feelings of confusion with new insights. I was starting to use other tools, such as the notion of personal development planning, behaviour modification and the use of feedback, which I had learnt, and realised I could use these to plan for my future through analysis of my past experiences. The module as a whole really started to ‘come together’ and make sense at this point.I also noticed that I was really enthusiastic in class, eager to join in discussions and work with others. By the end, I felt I had gained a set of tools that I can take with me in my future life, that will help me not only deal with day to day situations in my working life, but will help me assess where I am and where I want to be in a dynamic way, not a static one. I feel able to reflect upon my personal life as well and see if I am happy overall with the way my life is going. I also feel much more positive about myself and my skills, and really understand that change is possible although it is very difficult at times.

The module helped me discover many things about myself that I hadn’t been aware of. There were many particular things I learnt, for example that I had poor listening skills (I had thought I was a good listener), but that I was good at leading people and bringing out the best in them. There were many other aspects of my personality and skill set that I became aware of, however I would say the overall thing I learnt was self-awareness. I thought before the module that I knew what motivated me, what my talents were and what I was bad add, but I realised that I lacked the skills to really understand what I was about. The module taught me how to become properly self-aware through some simple tools. I am now, I feel, much more self-aware, though I still have a lot to learn (and I am looking forward to learning it).

The only thing that I felt affected the way I engaged with the module was my sense of stress and being over-whelmed at the mid stage, which I describe above. At one point I felt like quitting the module altogether, as I felt I just wasn’t getting to grips with the course as a whole. However, I used my learning journal and that helped me pull through this period and really enjoy the module as a whole. I felt lucky that this was the only issue; some people in my group suffered with health problems, and had to miss one or two sessions.

3. Competence development

For the first assessment stage of this module, we were asked to complete a ‘professional development matrix’, listing competencies in key areas including self-management interpersonal skills, personal leadership and self-development. Carrying out this assessment and completing the matrix was invaluable in assessing the development of one particular competency. My four competencies I discussed originally were stress management, self-confidence, personal leadership and goal setting. In this section I am focussing upon self-confidence, as this was one of my early successes I had using my learning journal, and I also feel that it lies at the heart of other competencies for me. Learning how to improve self-confidence helps reduce stress, as one feels naturally able to handle different situations. It also means leadership is easier, because if I don’t have confidence in myself, I cannot expect others to do so. It is also vital to self-development as one needs to have confidence that one can make the changes necessary for future development.I also focus upon this competency as I have always had a problem with believing in myself. This has led me to suffer stress in the past, for example when I was in high school I had a difficult exam. Although I had done well in previous exams, and although my teacher told me I had no need to worry, I really doubted that I would be able to pass. I had sleepless nights when I thought about how stupid I was, asking myself why I wasn’t able to remember the easiest thing, and thinking I would never achieve anything. Overall, at the start of the module, I would say I was still pretty low in self-confidence. I struggled to think of positives about my abilities and personality, although I could always think of bad things! The module has been invaluable to me in showing me practical ways to work on self-confidence, for example seeking feedback on how I have done from others, rather than relying upon my ‘inner critic’. However, I wish to focus on this competency not just because I feel it is at the core of the other competencies I have discussed, but because I feel I have a great deal of work still to do to improve my self-confidence further. For example, my self-confidence issues mean I would find it hard to give a presentation to a large group of people (I am now happy presenting to small groups for example my module group), or standing on a stage to present information.

In order to improve my self-confidence, I felt I needed to assess my current levels, in order to isolate where I need to improve. To do this I carried out a number of tests I found online, for example one posted by an association of counsellors and psychotherapists (OACCPP [online] 2011) which assesses self-confidence levels in terms of three areas, ‘achievement and accomplishment, ‘being valued and valuing others’, and ‘acting on beliefs’ (Commitment to values). I found that I scored particularly low for sense of achievement and accomplishment, highest on acting on beliefs, and rather low for being valued and valuing others. This suggested to me that I need to focus upon building my sense of achievement first, and also pay some attention to how I believe others value me. I felt there was a need for a practical and theoretical framework to help me do that, although I saw I could use some tools that had been taught during the module: for example skills taught in session about confidence and assertiveness as well as listening and communicating were helpful. I did some research into different frameworks for building self-confidence, and found that Burns (1993a; 1993b) had put forward a respected model for improving levels of self-esteem. I found it particularly useful as it offers a step-by-step way to tackle problems, and you are able to work alone or in groups. I also liked the fact it incorporates principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (Mruk 2006). Cognitive behavioural therapy is a way of identifying behaviour patterns and thoughts which are not helpful, and then identifying ways of challenging the thoughts and intervening in the behaviours. (Wilding and Palmer 2010)

I felt Burns’ ideas were presented in a way similar to the module, in that tools were given for both assessing levels of ability and to change my actions and beliefs. Particularly, because Burns (1993a) offers a plan which includes activities, ways to carry out assessment and also ways to improve, I felt it fitted well with my learning journal and Kolb’s cycle of learning.

My present level of competence in self-confidence is higher than in the past, but I feel still lower than it could be. I want to build upon the successes during the course, where I found out that by trying new things which might challenge me, I can become more confident. There are a number of situations which I want to seek out to build confidence, working with Burn’s tools. I want to develop my ability to speak to others in large groups, and also my ability to convince them of a particular point of view. I will try and take such opportunities as they present themselves. For example, if I am in a class where the leader asks a question, I will try and answer even if I am not 100% confident of what to say. I will also join a debating society, which I believe will give me practical tools to help convince others of what I say. I am also going to ask for feedback from my friends much more often, and of other people as well, where the opportunity presents itself. I would also like to build my confidence in interview situations, as I will face a number of these when I move into the working world. To work on this I am going to read about best interview technique, and will ask friends if they will help do ‘dress rehearsals’ of interviews, with feedback. I am also going to contact the university careers service to see if they offer practical help. I will set out a schedule for these activities using my learning journal. I will make notes every couple of days (after an exercise) and will read back these every few days and again at the end of the exercise, to reflect upon how the challenges went.

4. Conclusion

The above offers an account of my development as a result of taking the module. Completing the seven session has contributed tremendously to both my personal and professional development, and has also helped me see these as two interconnected elements, each of which impact upon the other. I started the module with, I thought, a clear idea of my capabilities, ambitions and limitations, but working through the course made me realise that I had not realistically assessed my capabilities. It also made me realise that I could change things about my performance that I did not like, and has given me a blueprint for my future career and personal life which I will take with me.

Overall, I am pretty happy that I took full advantage of the opportunities of the course. Although I found it a little challenging at the early stages, I tried hard with the exercises, especially the learning journal, and did work beyond the course requirements. For example, I was inspired to research different ways of keeping journals, which was very helpful.

I can see that although I have made a lot of progress, there are always going to be things which I want to work upon. In fact, I see it as one of the benefits of the module that I can now be realistic about what I have achieved and build upon my successes in the future. I want to continue to work to improve my self-confidence, as there are some areas, such as speaking to large groups of people I don’t know, where I feel I am still weak. But I’m optimistic that I can improve and will actively seek out opportunities to work on this area.

I am going to continue reading and talking with a few friends who are also interested in taking personal and professional development further. We might work in a group to help each other with feedback and new ideas. All in all, I am really looking forward to my future now.

5. References

Burns, D D (1993a) Ten Days to Self-Esteem, Quill, New York.

Burns, D D (1993b) Ten Days to Self-Esteem: The Leader’s Manual, Quill, New York.

Kolb, D A (1984) Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Moon, J A (1999) Learning journals: a handbook for academics, students and professional development, Routledge, UK

Moon, J A (2004) A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: theory and practice, Routledge, UK

Mruk, CJ (2006) Self-esteem research, theory, and practice: toward a positive psychology of self-esteem (3rd edn.), Springer Publishing Company, 2006 New York

OACCPP (2011) ‘About self-confidence’ [online] (cited 30th September 2011) available from http://www.oaccpp.ca/survey.html ‘About self-confidence’.

Wilding, C and Palmer, S (2010) Boost Your Self-Esteem with CBT: A Teach Yourself Guide, McGraw-Hill, USA.

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