Personal Learning Plans: a Tool for Engaging and Retaining Talent

By Christy Ciezki & Nisha Kharé

Personal Learning Plans: An Organizational Tool

In a time of increasing competition and economic pressures, employers are faced with difficult recruitment and retention challenges. Learning Plans are a tool used by many organizations to link business needs with individual career development interests, thus potentially engaging and retaining employees for longer periods. Learning plans benefit both employers and employees, as they build a sense of ownership and motivation through communication and negotiation. Self-directed learning allows employees to take responsibility for their own learning and career development, as it involves a level of personal investment. Employers reap the benefits through supporting and investing in their employees, which leads to an increase in skill development, motivation, and productivity.

How did Learning Plans come about?

Personal Learning Plans (PLP's) are based on the theoretical foundation for contract learning developed by Carl Rogers (1983) in the early 1980's, and later defined more specifically by Malcolm Knowles (1986). Learning contracts, also referred to as learning plans, study plans, performance agreements, or personal development plans, are intended to connect the learner's personal interests and needs with the expectations of the educational institution, teacher, or workplace organization. Developing the plan creates a sense of ownership and motivation to achieve self-defined objectives and creates the opportunity for the negotiation process between the learner and teacher or employer to occur, thereby providing an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding of expectations. Essentially a learning plan is a written plan describing what an individual will learn, how the learning will be accomplished, how it links to prior learning experience, and how its success will be measured; "it replaces a content plan with a process plan" (Knowles, 1986, p. 39). Learning contracts were initially used by adult learners in educational institutions, but are now used in a variety of settings and different delivery modes. Research has shown the positive outcomes of using learning contracts to include enhanced motivation and more individualized instruction (Hiemstra, 1990; Anderson, Boud, & Sampson, 1996).

The educational theory behind learning contracts is Knowles' principle of andragogy, which incorporates five assumptions about adult learners: 

  1. The need to be self-directed increases as self-concept develops - adult learners prefer to decide what they will learn, how they will learn, when, and how they measure their success.

  2. Experience becomes a key resource for learning and also impacts how individuals have developed their preferred style of learning - learning is very individual

  3. Adults' readiness to learn is influenced by a perceived need in their own life situation, which is unique and varies among individuals.

  4. The orientation toward learning shifts toward problem-centeredness and learning which can be applied.

  5. Motivation to learn becomes internal - children respond to external motivators (parents'/teachers' expectations, grades, etc.), but adults' deepest motivation is intrinsic (increases in self-esteem, responsibility, creativity and self-fulfillment).

Knowles also identified three important reasons for self-directed learning:

  1. Individuals who take the initiative to learn on their own enter learning more purposefully, with greater motivation, and learn more deeply and permanently;

  2. Self-directed learning aligns with the natural process of psychological development, which is to take greater personal responsibility in one's life; and

  3. Many new developments in education place responsibility on learners to take initiative in their own learning. In the past decade, the use of learning contracts has gained greater acceptance, as research on self-directed learning has led to the need for appropriate learning resources. Employers have also come to demand increasing flexibility and autonomy of workers, as well as the ability to reflect on one's practice as a professional.

Purpose of Learning Plans:

The purpose of a learning plan, as it could be used within an organization to advance worker learning is to provide a method for reconciling between the employee's internal needs and interests and the external expectations of the workplace. Learning plans are used as a tool to promote self-directed learning and help adults individualize their learning experiences. They build on and develop the learner's existing skills and experiences, acknowledging individual differences and allowing activities to be tailored to the specific needs and interests of the learner. Also, learning contracts attend to the diverse needs of a wide range of worker- learners, as they can be tailored to individual, cultural, linguistic, and ability differences. Thus, learning contracts promote improved access and equity within workplaces.

The learning plan process is initiated by the assessment of learning needs. The learning need is defined as a gap between the learner's current competency level and the desired level of competency; for example, an employee may require a more advanced skill level in a particular area in order to progress to a higher level position or a different career stream. Needs may be identified by the learner, by the supervisor, or may emerge as the contract progresses. The second step is to specify learning objectives, defining what will be learned. The third step is to identify resources and strategies, considering a range of media such as, printed material, online tools, and people as resources. Next, the worker-learner must determine what the evidence for accomplishing set objectives will be. The worker-learner must be specific about how it can be demonstrated that a skill has actually been acquired. The fifth step requires the worker-learner to identify the criteria for assessment; this will vary depending on the nature of the objective. For example, a learning objective of ‘improving written communication skills' may include criteria such as; ‘written material (e.g., notes, e-mails, letters) is clear, logical, uses correct grammar, language, spelling and punctuation' and ‘documents are tailored (e.g., content, style and medium) to the appropriate audiences'.

At this point, the worker-learner reviews the plan with the supervisor to determine whether revisions are required. Next, the worker-learner carries out the plan, continuously evaluating and modifying work to satisfy emerging needs. Finally, learning is evaluated through self- and external assessment to ensure what was set out to be learned was in fact learned.

Benefits of the Personal Learning Plan:

Personal Learning Plans are effective workplace learning and career development tools because they are of mutual benefit to both the worker-learner and the organization. Click here for some of the key benefits of the Personal Learning Plan,layout_details_cc.

 Role of Career Counselors:

Within organizations, career counselors play a critical role in supporting both managers and worker-learners in the successful implementation of Personal Learning Plans. Counselors can assist worker-learners in exploring their skills, interests, values, and career goals in order to identify both professional and personal learning objectives. Counselors also help worker-learners to understand how their unique and preferred learning style will impact the choice of learning strategies used to achieve their objectives, as well as offer suggestions for alternative learning strategies (e.g., online learning, job shadowing, mentoring, work assignments, etc.). Counselors can assist managers by coaching them to have effective career development conversations with their staff. This may include how to initiate a conversation about learning and development, how to approach performance issues which may arise during the process, the types of questions they might ask to encourage discussion of career interests, and strategies for developing a career development plan.

Learning plans have been used in a variety of settings including, basic literacy, graduate study, independent study, vocational training, and group learning. They have also been used in a range of delivery modes, including distance learning, clinical placements, and professional development programs. As with any tool, there are always cautions. Some potential limitations of the learning plan include: learners may not always be the best judges of what they need to learn and may require guidance; some learners experience anxiety over this responsibility; the process is time-consuming; the basis for learning is outcome-oriented; and they may not work for those who prefer a more authoritarian style of instruction. It should be cautioned that the learning plan is a tool and not an end in itself, but if used properly, can assist in attending to the diversity of learner needs while providing a mechanism for learner accountability.



Anderson, G., Boud, D., & Sampson, J. (1996). Learning contracts: A practical guide. London: Kogan Page.

Hiemstra, R. (1990). Individualizing instruction: making learning personal, empowering, and successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from http://abpc.wikispaces.com/space/showimage/Rog-Learning+Contract-1.pdf.

Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts. Practical approaches to individualizing and structuring learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, C. R. (1983). Freedom to Learn for the 80's. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.


Nisha Khare & Christy Ciezki

Christy Ciezki, B.Sc., M.Ed. has worked in human resources for the past six years and has focused on learning and career development within the federal government setting, most recently with Health Canada. She is the Career & Learning Consultant with Health Canada for the Alberta Region. Christy completed her Masters in Adult Education from the University of Alberta in April 2009. Christy can be contacted at Christy.Ciezki@hc-sc.gc.ca.


Nisha Kharé, B.A., B.Ed., M.Ed., R.C.C. is the Career & Learning Consultant with Health Canada for the British Columbia Region. She works with employees to help them reach their full potential in the workplace through one-on-one counselling, group workshops and program creation/delivery. She received her Master's in Counselling Psychology from the University of British Columbia, which complements her teaching and psychology background. Nisha is also a television show host and has recently started stand-up comedy. Nisha can be contacted at Nisha.Khare@hc-sc.gc.ca.

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