A Look at Prior Learning Assessments
Topic of Discussion: Prior Learning Assessments
New Insights. Do you think that it is fair or right that some adult learners’ can skip taking one or more accredited courses, and still somehow be granted the course credits, or exemption or admission to a course or program? Do they really have the same skill, knowledge and competency that one would expect see in those who took the pre-requisite course?
To learn more about these complex questions, my assigned learning partner for this assignment, Cindy W., and I agreed to research the topic of Prior Learning Assessments (PLA’s). We also agreed to meet after several weeks, to teach each other what we had learned from researching and reflecting on the topic. It was very interesting how the process of researching the same subject and then teaching each other and discussing our findings influenced our thinking. In my case, the learning allowed me to change my vote and expand my awareness and frame of reference regarding prior learning assessments. The following blog is my attempt to describe my thought journey in this exercise.
For starters, this assessment process goes by a variety of descriptive titles such as Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) (Wikipedia 2012).
I initially approached this assignment with my notions already formed. My starting impression was that (PLA’s) were a bit tricky or underhanded and in the same fairness category as honorary doctorates which seem to be granted, at times, for political reasons rather than learning accomplishments. I thought that the RPL, PLA, and PLAR were processes that were contrived as a money grab, a short cut, a special enticement or offering from colleges to woo new students, an opportunity which could save time and money by allowing the skipping of some learning requirements. I even speculated that offering PLA’s might make even make some educational institutions more attractive to some students than other institutions by saving time or money to complete a program.
I confess, I received the convenience of course credits granted for prior learning in some courses in my own academic learning path. There was no real assessment of my skill, knowledge or competency. Perhaps that experience made me a bit skeptical of the process of PLA and that perception lingered until I delved more deeply into the matter while completing this assignment.
I went to the internet looking for everything negative to discredit PLA but instead I gained some new insights and understanding. I learned that the PLA process, while still not adequately standardized, it a very useful process that when done well significantly increases learning opportunities and offers many benefits to society. I learned that there are far more benefits to consider than risks. I read a summary sheet from Prior Learning Assessments Inside Out, containing opinions of adult educators who regularly work with PLA’s and found their reports both informative and enlightening PLAIO (2014).
A key factor that may be driving a demand for PLA’s is a rapid globalization of our world and widespread shortages of skilled trades and professions in many countries. There are veterans and other adult learners with significant knowledge and skills who are often not eligible, on the basis of their formal transcripts, to enter into higher education in a college or university. Necessity is forcing society to challenge the notion that the course credit showing on an official transcript is the only way to gain access or move forward along a formal educational path.
The insight that I gained from researching the topic of PLA’s is that I am much more aware of and supportive of the concept of using prior learning assessments when appropriate. I realize that there are challenges but there also tremendous opportunities for adult educators to contribute in a significant way as prior learning assessments take on a bigger role in the educational assessment, admission and administration process.
My insight from researching the topic is that adult educators should be prepared to teach a more diverse adult learner population as more adult learners from various backgrounds and parts of the world have greater access to education and become adult learners. More learners will result in an increased demand for adult educators both in conventional classrooms and in online course facilitation.
For some adult learners who are entering into a classroom after years of experiential learning in the workplace or a theatre of war, they may initially need more assistance from the adult educator to understand the learning process and feel connected with other adult learners in the same course. According to Klein-Collins (2010), studies have shown that adult learners who have been granted recognition for prior learning are more committed to learning and are less likely to drop out of their courses.
With greater use of prior learning assessments in the educational path, particularly for colleges, many adult educators will need to learn how to do prior learning assessments fairly, consistently and effectively. In addition, adult educators need to be able to be proficient and consistent in the prior learning assessment process.
In some countries, adult educators require certification to be able to conduct prior learning assessments. Adult educators are finding increasing opportunities to work with governments and universities to establish standards and policies for PLA.
Significant work also remains to be done by adult educators to contribute to the course accreditation process and transferability of academic credentials provincially, nationally and globally but that is a different issue and reflection. In some educational institutes, such as the Montana University System, (MUS) Montana University (2015), considerable work has been done on Prior Learning Assessment policy and procedures development. Entire teams of adult educators at MUS are dedicated solely to supporting and assisting adult learners to utilize and benefit from using the PLA process. With greater use of PLA’s many adult learners have improved access to adult learning opportunities in colleges and universities.
Prior learning assessments are also used in other ways to determine the skills, knowledge and competency of an individual going into a profession governed by legislation. As an example, doctors, nurses, laboratory technologists and other health professionals that come to Canada hoping to find work in their fields, are subject to a skills, competency and knowledge evaluation before they can be granted a licence to practice in the Canada. This applies even to health professionals hoping to practice in another province where the licencing boards conduct some form of PLA to determine suitability within their jurisdiction. In such instances, where competency and knowledge are critical, to public safety, such as an airline pilot or a surgeon, a glowing reference letter from a previous employer is not adequate to establish competency. Specific essential learned attributes must be tested and verified or the individual is required to retake some of the training and education as necessary.
A review of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Sciences CSMLS (2016) Prior Learning Assessment and Admissions guide, revealed a comprehensive and well-documented Prior Learning Assessment Process. This document is a good example of prior learning assessment principles being followed. The PLA policy is clearly defined, knowledge and skill competencies are standardized, and procedures are established and the PLA helps expedite the licencing process when it is appropriate.
Schinnerl (2001) who worked with the Ministry of Advanced Education in British Columbia in creating a “Suggested Policy Template for Undergraduates at British Columbia Universities” document identified key gaps in the PLS process that need to be addressed. This document is certainly worth reviewing by any educational organization or individual that is using or planning to use PLA’s. Schinnerl (2001), in preparing this document, consulted with 72 universities in three continents and identified the common practices and problems with PLA’s.
In spite of the excellent prior learning assessment policies and standards established in some organizations and educational institutions, the current lack of consistency in the standards established for PLA, is in my view, the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for adult educators.
An example of the skepticism regarding the subjectivity in the PLA process is demonstrated by the following excerpt from Stenlund (2010) which shows typical instructions to a PLA applicant. “Evidence for RPL that you submit must be current and may include: Letters and references, including confirmation from your employers, clients or community groups. References from your paid or unpaid work experience. Samples of your work, including reports, articles or publications”. The potential problem with the preceding is that it is not a true assessment of an individual’s prior learning.
“Such potential subjectivity can be damaging for the credibility of educational credentials if the eligibility for courses is perceived to be arbitrary, institution specific, discretionary and inconsistent. According to Krause (2012) “Credit for prior experience” is essentially the formula used by diploma mills to justify their fake degrees– the “PhD in life,” so to speak. So until that well-deserved bias is overcome, getting actual college credit from an actual college will be tricky Krause (2012)”.
Adult educators because of their close relationship with adult learners are in the best position to observe and monitor the adult learners’ progress and assess the learning process. Adult educators need to be proactive in making recommendations to educational administrators for ongoing review and improvements of the educational process.
Trends. There is a demographic shift globally showing an increased proportion of senior citizens and also an increase in retirees. There is an upward trend in number of adult learners globally. The number of female adult learners is also increasing, United Nations Statistics Division (2015). There is an increase in the number of female adult educators in Canadian secondary and post-secondary institutions Statistics Canada (2009).
There is increased use of prior learning assessments by educational establishments, particularly colleges, to open the door for more adult learners to be accepted for enrollment in various educational programs. Lakin (2015) states that “Credit for prior learning is gaining traction as one strategy for advancing post secondary degree attainment”.
There has been a trend in the job market of demanding higher level credentials. Where a baccalaureate degree was once applauded as a significant academic achievement, that learning milestone and triumph is often shunned now in favour of higher educational milestones such as Master or Doctorate.
There is widespread consensus regarding the need for increased standardization of prior learning assessments and the development and adoption of international standards and a number of high level formal bodies have been established to better govern the process of prior learning assessments Lakin (2015).
With a growing interest and increased demand in higher education there will be increased utilization of adult educators to fill that need. There is increased competition for educational institutions to attract students. With reference to the intense competition to attract students and using the practice of prior learning assessments to improve access to higher education, Schinnerl (2001) states that “if universities fail to respond to changing learning populations it is inevitable that alternative educational providers will seize the opportunity”. This competitive pressure is causing a trend in increased utilization, by many universities, of prior learning assessments in the adult learner admission process.
Learning Partner Consultation. The teaching exercise with my learning partner was very engaging and insightful. Although it seemed that we had come to essentially the same conclusions about the research findings regarding PLA the discussion deepened my analysis and interpretation of the information.
Starting with the lack of standard terminology, i.e. PLA, PLAR, and RPL we agreed that consensus is lacking in many aspects the subject of prior learning assessments. When it comes to prior learning assessments, there is a lack of consensus in purpose, policy, procedures, and even educational outcomes. We agreed that getting course exemptions or credits because of successful PLA’s may be the fastest and cheapest route to complete a set of studies and earn a diploma or certificate, but at what real cost? Is the earned credential as good and does it matter? Everyone’s learned knowledge and skills diminish over time anyway, if the skill or knowledge is not used.
Discussing and learning from each other brought a new perspective and even more questions, such as “when seeking prior learning assessment and recognition what is the primary motive of the adult learners”? “When offering PLA’s, what is the motive of the educational institution”? We agreed that using PLA’s is an innovative way to attract students, and offer the chance to save time and money, or even gain college admission when it wasn’t previously possible for some adult learners.
Because of the team learning exercise, we found ourselves engaging in conversations that were previously not considered. For example, we both agreed that anything that raises the level of learning and knowledge in society is ultimately good for society. Does the actual certificate or diploma or degree matter so much in the context of lifelong learning? How long after a PhD is earned does the individual forget the essence of what they researched? I do have my doctorate, but there is no possible way that I could pass my final exams if I had to write those exams now, decades after I first earned my degree.
If getting a few required courses waived by a successful PLA reduces some expenses and time, why wouldn’t an adult leaner go for that option and also select the educational institution that is offering such progressive terms? Many universities for various reasons have reportedly held back more than the colleges in the general acceptance and use of PLA’s to waive some required courses for adult learners Schinnerl (2001).
However, for economic reasons, more universities are now attempting to follow the lead of the colleges and make greater use of the PLA’s to be more attractive to adult learners from a wider range of backgrounds. Based upon the research that my learning partner and I did, the real issue regarding PLA’s is how to use the prior learning assessment tool to truly support quality, access and equity in adult learning.
Following the learning discussion it is my view that the PLA tool has a number of significant attractive features that promote adult learning and, as a result, it is a tool that is going to see increased utilization in promoting educational opportunities for adult learners. With the increased use of PLA’s it is imperative that Prior Learning Assessments Policy and Procedures should be mandated and standardized and have oversight at a national level.
Because of the fact that human memories can fade and manual skills can deteriorate over time when not used, the discussion led us to agree as a final point in the available time, that PLA’s should not be used to bypass relearning critical competency knowledge and skills in safety sensitive skills and positions. For example, an airplane navigator who has not flown for 10 years should not be granted prior learning credit for the prior navigation skills and knowledge because that knowledge is out of date. The instruments and procedures required for navigation have changed completely in the past decade and it is essential to refresh what was previously learned.
Although this was a brief exercise the learning partner experience demonstrated the creative benefit of collaboration and discussion of complex topics. As a result of the discussion and seeing the subject through another adult learners thoughts and experiences, many new ideas emerged which resulting in me learning and understanding more about the subject of prior learning assessments. One take away that I will incorporate more in future lesson planning is to provide more opportunities for adult learners to enhance and deepen their learning by teaching what they have learned to others.
Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science. Retrieved from
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cael.org
Klein-Collins, R., (2010). Fueling the race to postsecondary success: A 48-institution study of
prior learning assessment and adult student outcomes.
Lakin, M.B., (2015). The Council of State Governments Knowledge Center.
Credit for prior learning: Transfer models across the nation. Retrieved from
Montana University. (2015). Prior learning assessment expanded policy recommendations. https://mus.edu/2yr/PLA/Documents/MT%20PLA%20Expanded%20Policy%20Recommendations%209-11-15%20FINAL.pdf
Prior Learning Assessment Inside Out. (2014). Volume 2, Number 2 Retrieved from:
Schinnerl, S., (2001). Suggested policy template for undergraduates at British Columbia
universities. Retrieved from
Stenlund, T. (2010). Assessment of prior learning in higher education: A review from a validity
perspective. Assessment & evaluation in higher education, 35(7), 783-797. Retrieved