Should You Explore Prior Learning Assessment?

Should You Explore Prior Learning Assessment?

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Broadly defined, Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a process by which students, or potential students, document and demonstrate how previous career, military, or other relevant experiences may appropriately substitute for general education requirements, or required credits or competencies within selective degree programs.

In the past, many have viewed PLA as being somewhat sketchy—more of a “cash for credit” exchange than a process by which students truly document their prior learning and how that learning could be counted toward degree or graduation requirements. I’ve heard skeptics share stories of how students would be asked by institutions to page through course catalogs or timetables and identify courses they considered fulfilled based on past military, career, or other professional or life experiences.

According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), there has been increased interest in PLA in the past five to ten years. However, PLA is by no means new, as veterans of World War II were earning college credits for previous military training back in the 1940s and 1950s. And CAEL has been helping colleges and universities develop policies and procedures around PLA dating back to the mid- 1970s. With increased interest in PLA, we are now starting to see legislation in a number of states mandating that institutions establish policies and procedures for PLA use.

A variety of ways to assess
There are many approaches to PLA. Some familiar ways students can earn and transfer-in college credits include Advanced Placement Exams, College Level Examination Program Exams, the DSST Credit by Exam Program, the Excelsior College Examination Program, and the UExcel Credit by Exam Program. Many colleges and universities also use test-out or challenge exams, often for introductory courses, which give students the opportunity to demonstrate skills and knowledge.

Some PLA approaches that might be viewed more skeptically, especially by faculty, include taking into consideration a student’s prior experiences related to career, military service, cultural or religious activities, volunteer activities, skill demonstrations, corporate training activities, travel abroad, and what some have started calling do-it-yourself education or experiences such as completing MOOCS or accessing academic information and lectures through YouTube, iTunes, or open educational resources such as Khan Academy or MERLOT.

The basic premise behind PLA is that college-level learning can occur in places other than college, and what matters most is what people know, or have learned, and not so much where or how that learning occurred. That premise can be extremely hard for some faculty to accept, as it so foreign to their beliefs related to higher education. That might be why some faculty are also resistant to the competency-based education movement, which routinely employs PLA. Many faculty still have entrenched beliefs about learning and how learning is directly tied to the number of student credit hours completed. In reality, the credit hour was never intended to be a direct measure of student learning.

Where to start
Institutions exploring whether to start offering PLA opportunities to their students should start by examining the reason. Would it be to attract new populations of students (e.g., adult learners), to help students with some college credit get back on the degree completion track, or possibly even to help decrease time to graduation? Roughly one in five Americans, or about 40 million adults, have some college credit under their belts, but no degree. Roughly one-third of students change institutions over the course of their collegiate career, and many face challenges transferring credits from one institution to another. PLA can help with these kinds of scenarios.

In 2010, CAEL conducted research involving 62,475 students at 48 colleges and universities, examining the use of PLA on student persistence and graduation rates. The results showed that students with PLA credits had higher persistence rates, faster times to degree completion, and graduation rates two-and-a-half times higher when compared with students who did not earn PLA credits.

Faculty buy-in essential
As I have said many times in past columns, faculty support and buy-in is important when an institution is considering new programs or initiatives. I consider this especially important in the case of PLA. Faculty should be involved in developing PLA policies and procedures, the assessments used, and the evaluation of materials students submit. Other stakeholders who could be involved in developing PLA policies include department chairs, academic deans, the admissions office, the financial aid office, and the office of records and registration. Institutions looking for guidance can find support through CAEL or the American Council on Education (ACE) PLA guides.

Checking out real programs
In preparation for this article, I wanted to see the types of things institutions were doing related to PLA. I visited the websites of a dozen schools that use PLA and also talked to administrators at other institutions with PLA programs. There is a tremendous amount of variability across institutions on how PLA is administered.

However, a few constants emerged as well. Many schools either encourage, or require, students interested in submitting PLA materials to enroll in a course–often for credit—where the final product is a portfolio that documents students’ past experience. Schools that use PLA usually have counselors or support personnel available to work with students when they contact the school to inquire about PLA opportunities. And due to the intensive and time-consuming nature of developing and assessing PLA materials, most institutions provide some form of remuneration to faculty who participate.

Prior learning assessment is gaining traction that likely will continue. Institutions looking to move forward with a PLA initiative should proceed with appropriate planning, stakeholder buy-in, and resource allocation.