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.

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.

Establish specific criteria for evaluation, not by course objective but by outcomes.

“Identify the specific skills the student would need to learn in the course, and then look for documentation of those skills. If you are going to get credit for a data communications course, you need to know X, Y, and Z.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Prepare the student adequately via a workshop, seminar, or for-credit course. Make it clear to students that the portfolio is not a shortcut. “We do not award credit for life experience,” Hart remarks. “There’s no such thing. We award credit for knowledge gained through a life experience.” The portfolio needs to be a rigorous process to evaluate that, and students need to approach it with the right expectations. Hart recommends ensuring your academic advisers are prepared to work with students to identify the right opportunities for prior learning assessment.

A good academic adviser needs to:

  • Help the student “weed out” those areas of prior learning that are not college-level or are not complete
  • Obtain syllabi from the academic departments, review course descriptions and outcomes, and topics on the syllabus, with the student to determine whether this material is familiar
  • “Dig in” with the student in an earnest conversation about their prior learning — “help them siphon through what their skills actually are”

“Generally portfolio assessment and challenge exams are used where the student already has the knowledge. This is not a situation where the student can buy a Barron’s guide and study like crazy. The student needs to present evidence for what he or she has already done and established.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Oral Exams & Interviews

However, there may be many cases in which a student will wish to demonstrate prior learning but will not have documented evidence of knowledge and skills. For example, adult learners who have worked as engineers or information technology professionals and have extensive and specialized experience may not be able to share work samples that are proprietary. In this case a challenge exam will be the most appropriate method to assess prior learning.

At most campuses that use them, a challenge exam takes the form of a written proficiency test — for instance, the final exam from a course. Hart suggests a better model.

“Design challenge exams as oral exams, or as discussions and interviews, where faculty meet with students to discuss their skills in depth.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Performance Assessment

In some cases, Hart advises, a performance assessment will be the only way to determine whether the student has the necessary prior learning. Use a performance assessment when you need to see a student perform or demonstrate a skill against a specific set of criteria. For example, a student challenging a course in dental hygiene will need to demonstrate that she can perform the work.

Hart also cites the example of public speaking. Suppose the student in question is a public official who speaks frequently, has a large portfolio of documented speeches (with both print copies and videorecordings), and even drafts of the speeches so that the faculty can see how the speeches were developed. Public speaking, however, is another course where a performance is necessary for evaluation. The best strategy to assess prior learning in this case is not to rely on the documentation alone but to have the student give a talk or a presentation. You will need to see that this student is a skilled speaker. Does he make eye contact with the audience? Does he talk with his hands?

“Use performance assessment when you need to evaluate items that cannot be placed between the covers of a binder.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Hart also advises offering a “menu” of assessment strategies. “Some students will do well in face-to-face meetings, some less so.” If you provide multiple ways for adult learners to demonstrate and provide evidence of prior learning, then a student can work with the academic adviser to determine what strategy would work best for them.

Evaluating Local Training

Most institutions are familiar with ACE’s recommendations for assigning credit to military and corporate training, based on a regular review conducted by faculty experts. Hart recommends not only making use of the ACE recommendations, but also applying a similar approach to local training in your area. Using a “mini” version of the ACE model, your institution can establish an in-house review to recommend credit to be assigned for training programs in local industry. This can be a time-saver and allow you to assess prior learning more quickly and efficiently.

“Look for areas where you are receiving repeated requests for PLA.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

For example, Hart cites the case of an institution that saw repeated requests by students who worked in law enforcement to have credit assigned for law enforcement training. “Rather than reinvent the process each time,” Hart remarks, “work with faculty to evaluate what skills need to be demonstrated in order to pass the course, and what credit the faculty would assign for those skills — 1 credit, 2 credits, 4 credits, etc.” Establish a common recommendation, and then have faculty revisit and re-evaluate the training program every few years to account for changes in the training.

Don’t Be Hesitant

Many institutions are hesitant to take a less restricted approach to PLA, either from fears about rigor or concerns over losing tuition revenue. (If you assign 30 credits for prior learning, have you just awarded one quarter of that student’s degree for free?) However, citing CAEL research, Hart advises taking a big picture look at prior learning assessment. Revenue loss is likely offset by the fact that assigning credit for prior learning increases the odds of persistence and academic success.

“By accelerating these students, you are helping them move right along to graduation or into graduate education. And you are increasing the student’s satisfaction. You are creating an advocate for your institution.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

The cautions Hart does offer are:

  • Don’t take on more than you can do all at once; try implementing one PLA strategy and check how well it is working before adding the next option
  • Build buy-in with faculty and staff by including them in the planning process — don’t plan for PLA and then ask for information from them afterward; involve them from the start
  • Stay focused on your students — do your research, find out what types of prior learning your students are likely to bring to your institution, and what type of PLA they need