Techniques for Assessing Prior Learning

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Here's how to do prior learning assessment (PLA) rigorously and well. The suggestions given are by the author of a landmark study of prior learning assessment portfolios.


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Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, has released a statement offering ideas for a national strategy to rapidly train workers for new jobs; among these, prior learning assessment (PLA) was cited as one possible game-changer.

But beyond CLEP and the controversial challenge exam, how can enrollment managers and academic leaders assess prior learning effectively and with rigor? 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, for techniques that institutions should be thinking about.

The Prior Learning Portfolio

Hart recommends starting with portfolio assessment as your core option. But for this to work, you have to:

  • Make sure the portfolio is evaluated by faculty experts who have a current knowledge of the specific course material
  • Set very specific criteria for evaluation
  • Prepare the student adequately

It is important to have the portfolio evaluated by faculty with specific and relevant expertise. "Don't have a History of Civil War expert evaluating a Vietnam War portfolio," Hart cautions. "Have someone who is au courant, who knows the material, is current with the material, and understands adult learners." The portfolio, after all, is intended to demonstrate that the student already has the specific knowledge he or she would have gained from the course.


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