The use of PebblePad with First Year Undergraduates to aid transition and retention, support employability and the development of the life-long learner


The use of PebblePad with First Year Undergraduates to aid transition and retention, support employability and the development of the life-long learner

The project was led by Dr Ken Fox, School Director of Learning and Teaching and Jane Milton, Programme Director, Film Production, in the School of Creative Arts & Industries.


The project aimed to put into practice aspects of the University’s Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy (2015-22) and the Strategic Framework Crosscutting Theme relating to:

  • Supporting an integrated approach to employability
  • Aiding transition and retention
  • Producing flexible and responsive learning environments, employability
  • Educating the whole person
  • Embedding Technology Enhanced Learning.

With the help of Simon Starr, the Faculty Learning Technologist, the team decided to use PebblePad with First Year students of the module “Professional Perspectives in the Creative Industries”. They were a total of 66 students: 28 from the BA (Hons) Film, Radio and Television and 38 from the BA (Hons) Film Production.

The PebblePad reflective portfolio

The aim was to use PebblePad as an e-portfolio repository that students use for their ongoing career development, and to integrate its use with the first assessment for this module. This module provides the platform for the programme’s integrated approach to graduate employability as the Professional Perspectives theme will be delivered as a core module in each year of the programme.

PebblePad provides a flexible and responsive learning environment where the students can interact with the staff to gain informal and formal feedback on their work. The module was set up with employability at its heart but this is underscored by the team’s desire to educate the whole person by offering space for the students to reflect upon their experiences of the first five weeks of Semester 1. The use of technology enhanced learning to provide this reflective space worked much more effectively than first hoped and the students showed evidence of beginning to talk and think about how they learn.

In their reflective writing task, students were asked to reflect on their experience of the first five weeks in Semester 1. To enable students to write reflectively, not simply assume that they could write in this way, two sessions on reflective writing and thinking, were set up, which were included in the timetable. With the help of Learning Developers, all students had an opportunity to begin the reflective writing process during these sessions.

The students’ reflective writing proved very enlightening: as they were doing their work the tutors could identify those students who were having difficulty. PebblePad enables tutors to give informal feedback on work as it is being written. The reflective writing worked as another conduit for students’ anxieties and a forum for tutors to share solutions and information about the highs and lows of their first five weeks. The prompts below were supplied for the students’ reflective writing activities:

  • How well have you settled in to the FRTV or Film Production programmes?
  • What has been the most difficult aspect of the settling in process?
  • What has been the most enjoyable?
  • Did you find out things about yourself and your ability to deal with new situations? Give an example or two.

Evaluation of the use of the PebblePad reflective portfolio

The final question enabled the students to reflect on their own learning process with some very heartfelt and insightful responses, as the excerpts below show:

Student 1 (BAME)

“I first found it hard to communicate with the people in my class because I was over thinking about what they would think of me, also the fact that my class has a mixture of ages I thought as most of the people are older than me, my opinion and thoughts would not be taken seriously. Within the first two lessons, I didn’t know that I had the ability to make friends so quickly, I didn’t think that I had it in me to be so trusting and open to people so early into my course, but I am glad I overcame and pushed passed the anti-social barrier.”

Student 2 (Straight from College)

“In the past five weeks I’ve moved out of my family home to begin a new chapter of my life at University. In this short amount of time, I’ve learnt that I am a lot more independent than I thought I was… Moving into halls was, and still is, a very big move for me. I was originally excited, but since arriving I’ve become very anxious and reserved. I’m trying my best to get used to my new home, but it is definitely easier said than done. Looking back at my progress over the five weeks I can see that I was a lot more anxious at the beginning, but now I’m finally getting somewhere.”

Student 3 (Returning to Education)

“In the first five weeks of this semester, I have learnt a lot about myself. Before joining, I had spent a long time out of education. I was nervous about returning to academic studying, and had no idea of what university life would be like. I was blown away by how wrong my thoughts on university were. I was very much stuck in the past and thought that university would be just like my previous experiences in education. I have really enjoyed my time here so far, and very much enjoy the friendly relationships students can have with staff, it breaks down the barriers that I felt came with a student/teacher scenario.”

The student feedback on the use of PebblePad in the module was very positive. Students seemed to take it in their digital stride. Tutors found the marking through Atlas a bit clunky at first, and there were some issues on how to grant extensions when a student couldn’t make the deadline due to extenuating circumstances, but this was solved by the Faculty Learning Technologist.

According to Helen Barrett, in her own life-long research on e-portfolios and their use as reflective tools (2018), the process of reflection through which learning experiences are explored can lead to deeper levels of learning and help develop a range of skills essential to lifelong and life-wide learning. There is ample evidence of this process getting underway in the reflective writing of the students using PebblePad as an e-portfolio. Not only did it enable them to write more freely on their first five-week experience but it provided tutors with an early warning mechanism for retention and success issues.

Research from the University of Portsmouth (2018) reaffirmed the team’s thinking that the students would only engage with a new digital platform if it was part of their assessment. The success of the use of PebblePad was also because of collaboration between learning technologists, employability leads, student academic support officers and academics.

This work is innovative because it brings together the use of digital technology as an aid for employability but also as part of equipping the students with the necessary digital skills in readiness for graduate and professional employment. The reflective writing as part of the first assessment allowed the students to respond with freedom and insight on their own learning and this enabled the tutors to be proactive in early intervention with students and their Personal Academic Tutors (PATs) to ensure retention was maximised and learning success enhanced. This reflective process begins a journey for the programme and the students and as Baume & Scanlon (2018: 13) suggest:

“… in school, college or higher education, we rarely talk much with our learners about learning. It would be good to talk about it more. It would be good to talk about: what we mean by learning, about the condition for learning, about our individual preference for learning, and about what we know about how we learn and like to learn.”

The team considers this innovative use of PebblePad to offer space for continuing the conversations about learning with students that will help them to “remain effective and enthusiastic life-long learners” (Baume & Scanlan, 2018:13).

For further information, please contact


Barrett, H. (2018)

Baume, D. and Scanlon, E. (2018). What the research says about how and why learning happens. In: R. Luckin, ed., Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology – What the Research Says, 1st ed. London: UCL IoE Press, pp.2-13.  

University of Plymouth (2018)

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