PLA: Outreach to Faculty

CAEL just released a study of the impact of prior learning assessment (PLA) on student learning and academic success, based on findings from 48 colleges and universities. The study found significantly higher graduation and persistence rates among students who earned prior learning credit when compared to non-PLA students, as well as shorter time-to-degree and higher GPA. You can read the findings here. Also, for an article in Higher Ed Impact offering practical advice on how to move beyond offering challenge exams to more rigorous tools for PLA, read Techniques For Assessing Prior Learning.

One of the most significant challenges in adopting prior learning assessment is the lack of awareness among faculty of both the rigor and the results of PLA (when done well), and resistance to awarding credit for learning achieved outside the classroom. This week, we asked Denise Hart, director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and author of a landmark study of prior learning assessment portfolios; and Tracy Cosker, associate vice president for transfer students at the American Public University System, for tactics for establishing buy-in with the academic side of the house to assess prior learning.

Making the Case

"Often," Cosker notes, "skeptics will assume that the reason you are going down this road is to get more enrollment -- that PLA is primarily a marketing ploy. They are worried that you may make decisions that adversely impact the academic learning of the student and that sacrifice the academic integrity of their degree programs. You need to acknowledge their concerns up front, and convey clearly the message: Yes we need enrollments, Yes we need students, but we need students who will be great representatives of the academic programs that you have designed for our institution."

Hart suggests that in reaching out to the academic side of the house, enrollment managers or program directors responsible for PLA need to:

  • Help faculty understand the process of prior learning assessment; offer training that will educate them about how your institution is assessing and applying credit for prior learning
  • Share the research and the data that demonstrates how PLA aids students, how the acceleration contributes to their engagement and success in the classroom, and to their degree completion
  • Share samples of portfolios or other assessments as evidence of the quality of the prior learning that is awarded credit
  • Discuss how the options for assessment are beneficial not only to the student but to the institution

"Share creditable portfolios, challenge exams, and other performance assessments among your faculty, particularly those who might question the thoroughness of these evaluation strategies. The evidence will speak for itself."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Cosker adds that your faculty exist and operate within a culture of data and evidence. It is essential to address the issue in their language. Any discussion of PLA needs to begin with the research affirming its effectiveness and detailing best practices.

Hart also suggests drawing attention to the kind of students who are awarded credit for prior learning. "These students are problem-solvers," she notes, "students who have often overcome significant challenges and undergone extensive training in the world outside academe. These are exactly the kind of students you want -- students who excel, students you can retain, students who are a good investment for your institution." She does add the caveat, though, that all of this assumes that you are taking a rigorous and effective approach to assessing prior learning. "You must get beyond standardized challenge exams. At the least, you need to be doing portfolio assessments."

Training Faculty in PLA

"It is essential that faculty are embedded in the assessment program, both as expert evaluators and in consultation with the program director to establish the parameters for academic rigor in the competencies and/or subject reviews."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Offering group training for faculty that walks them through the PLA process is critical to establishing buy-in and can serve as a starting point for identifying and developing strong faculty partnerships. Hart recommends that the training consist of:

  • Reviewing current standards, including CAEL standards for prior learning assessment and the accrediting standards for your region
  • Reviewing sample portfolios, with examples of both drafts and final products
  • Reviewing case studies of students who might approach you with a prior learning background that requires assessment
  • Problem-solving scenarios that place faculty in the role of the student

In the case study exercise, have small groups of faculty analyze the case studies collaboratively. Ask them how they would advise the student and ask them to identify specific opportunities to assess the student's prior learning.

In the problem-solving scenarios, ask faculty to create a hypothetical prior learning portfolio. Ask them to select a course description from your institution's catalog and identify 3 evidenciary documents that they (if they were students) could supply to demonstrate their knowledge.

"Get them to think about prior learning assessment creatively and firsthand."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U