• September 1, 2015

Where Life Earns Credit: 'Prior Learning' Gets a Fresh Assessment

Where Life Earns Credit: 'Prior Learning' Gets a Fresh Assessment 1

Sarah Weeden for The Chronicle

Shelly Stam, a 44-year-old student at Empire State College, earned credits by writing about her life experiences.

At first, James A. Nienow was skeptical of the idea. Why should instructors give students academic credit for something they had done outside a classroom?

Mr. Nienow, a biology professor at Valdosta State University, in Georgia, teaches an introductory course that freshmen call "biology boot camp." Known as a tough grader, he likes to peer through microscopes and work with data.

In other words, Mr. Nienow felt out of place when he attended his first meeting on experiential learning a couple of years ago. To assess the skills students acquired elsewhere seemed an imprecise task. To opt out of required courses, he recalls thinking, seemed like "a cheap way to get through."

Mr. Nienow has changed his mind, however. Today he considers evaluations of what educators call prior learning—which can include on-the-job training, military experience, or even volunteering—not only legitimate but necessary. He has helped Valdosta State develop an assessment plan for students with a knowledge of science, which allows them to get credit by demonstrating what they gained from a relevant experience, perhaps by cleaning up a stream as a volunteer for the Nature Conservancy, or by working in a laboratory.

"Even students who have no formal training presumably have learned something," he says. "I'm strongly in favor of giving students a chance to explore what they know."

Mr. Nienow's conversion took time, and in many corners of higher education, the idea that meaningful learning can happen everywhere remains downright radical. To accept the legitimacy of experiential learning is to expand the definition not only of college credit, but of college. And not everyone wants to do that. Nonetheless, educators at state universities, private colleges, and two-year institutions are taking a closer look at how to gauge the knowledge and skills adult students bring with them.

Prior-learning assessments can take several forms. Students may submit scores from standardized tests like the College Level Examination Program tests, or place out of courses by taking tests administered by their college. Some institutions use the American Council on Education's evaluations of work and military training. And some use individualized, portfolio-based projects, in which students describe what they've already learned.

On some campuses, competition has driven interest in experiential learning. Institutions must recruit adult students in an increasingly crowded and sophisticated market. Many Americans who've worked jobs and started careers, who've served in the military and helped their communities, expect colleges to validate those experiences with course credits, which shorten the path to a degree, saving students time and money. For years, for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix have promoted assessing such experiences as a vital part of their degree-completion options, something many traditional colleges have not done.

Recent research by Stamats, a higher-education marketing company, indicates that the availability of credit for life experience is the No. 1 thing adults look for when selecting a college. If College X does not offer that opportunity, many students will go to College Y to get it.

Meanwhile, in a slow economy, federal and state governments are seeking ways to increase the number of college graduates as fast as possible. Valdosta State started conducting prior-learning assessment about a year and a half ago, following the success of a pilot program through which professionals from various fields were retrained as teachers. By offering credits for their experiences, the university moved students through the program—and into jobs—quickly.

The idea spread to other departments, and Valdosta State has received federal and state money to help develop a full-fledged prior-learning program. Over all, just 15 percent of the university's 12,000 students are adults (25 or older), and so far only about 20 of them have received credits through that program. But Gerald A. Merwin Jr., a prior-leaning-assessment counselor at Valdosta State, expects those numbers to grow as the university expands its services for adult students.

Valdosta State would not have embraced prior learning, Mr. Merwin believes, if faculty members had resisted it. How did officials win their support? By bringing in several experts to help demystify portfolio assessments and explain what they are—and are not. When done thoroughly, individualized assessments reward students not for the experience per se, but for how well they can show what they learned.

"One parallel we draw," Mr. Merwin says, "is that the student's portfolio is not that different from what faculty members submit for tenure."

'Up to Your Knees' Learning

Discussions of prior-learning assessments often boil down to transactional terms: Who's getting how many credits for what?

Proponents of the method interpret its value more broadly. They describe it as a crucial marketing hook, a powerful incentive to enroll, and a key retention tool. At its best, a portfolio program can motivate anxious adults who may not have set foot in a classroom for many years.

"It helps propel you forward," says Shelly Stam, who's pursuing a bachelor's degree in organizational management at Empire State College, part of the State University of New York. Ms. Stam, 44, lives in Rochester. She enrolled at the college in 2006 after the home-improvement store where she worked went out of business. Unsure of what to do, she looked back and saw that she had lots of experience in retail and management but no bachelor's degree that might prove it.

Empire State, which offers more than 300 online courses to adults, allows students to write their own degree plan. Over time Ms. Stam completed five portfolios. In a paper titled "Decision Making," she described how she had refused to sell customers things they didn't need, how as an office manager she had cut shipping costs, and why in 1999 she decided to move closer to her family in New York, where she cared for her sick mother.

In another paper, "Not-for-Profit Organization, Leadership, and Management," Ms. Stam wrote about the six years she spent as the organizer of a military-family support group, for which she volunteered 20 hours a week. "While I believe that book learning is a very important and real aspect of education," she wrote, "it's the hands-on, up-to-your-knees involvement in a project or worthy cause which instills practical knowledge and leaves the imprint of what you have learned on your mind, heart, and soul."

An evaluator read each paper, interviewed Ms. Stam, and then recommended the number of credits she should receive. A faculty committee and an administrative office then reviewed those decisions. In the end, Ms. Stam earned a total of 19 credits.

Working on those papers stoked Ms. Stam's confidence. "It makes you realize what you learned," she says. "It brings to the forefront a lot of skills and talents you have but might not think you have."

On many campuses, creating a portfolio is no cakewalk. Sometimes students who look into the option ultimately decide to take a particular course instead of trying to capture what they've already learned. For one, the task requires students to write more than they might have done in years.

Ron Heath, 55, enrolled at Empire State in 2000. He had no postsecondary degree, but he had run a successful advertising and public-relations firm for nearly three decades.

One day in the late 1990s, Mr. Heath found himself riding on a private jet that belonged to his clients, the owners of a laundry and textile business. He was discussing branding strategies with them when an unpleasant thought struck: What if someone turned and asked, "Hey, where did you go to school, anyway?"

The feeling that something was missing led Mr. Heath to Empire State. He would not have considered a college that did not give him the opportunity to get some credit for what he had done during his career. "Year in and year out, I had worked with real clients and real money," he says.

Mr. Heath completed several portfolios in which he described his work experience, backing it up with specific examples, of speeches he'd given or projects completed. The credits he earned gave him a head start on an associate degree, and he went on to get a bachelor's degree in business and economics. Now pursuing an M.B.A., he works at a consulting firm—a job he says he would not have been able to get without a bachelor's degree.

"The hardest part is being retrospective about your own life," he says of writing the portfolios. "You're not going to get the credits if you don't really have the experience."

Whether that's true all depends on the college, however. The standards for prior-learning assessments vary from campus to campus. Some require extensive documentation for portfolio projects—such as letters from former bosses—while others require little. "Over the years, a lot of colleges have watered it down, giving credit where credit wasn't due," says Martha Kudak, chairwoman of the adult students' program at Inver Hills Community College, in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

At Inver Hills, students must complete two courses before they begin a portfolio. The courses help them understand that they must do a lot of work to receive credit for a particular project. "Some are scared to death to do this," Ms. Kudak says.

To get prior-learning credit, students at Inver Hills must not only write but also discuss what they've learned. For instance, students who have been in the work force for many years might opt to place out of "Interpersonal Communications." To do so, they review a relevant book, then write a "competence narrative" that substantiates their knowledge in particular areas.

Those students also watch When Harry Met Sally, after which they write a five- to seven-page analysis that incorporates at least two terms from the course. Finally, students discuss the movie, related concepts, and their own professional experience in front of a faculty observer, who evaluates them.

No matter how thorough an assessment is, traditionalists still might think of it as giving away credit. Some people also associate experiential learning with the market's shadier operations. "You can still find a for-profit college that will mail you a degree," says Brenda Harms, a consultant for Stamats. "That's added to the bad taste in people's mouths."

A Can of Worms?

The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) estimates that about half of all colleges and universities offer some form of experiential-learning assessment, but Ms. Harms guesses that far fewer explain the option loud and clear in their marketing materials: "A lot of places don't want to open that can of worms."

New research by CAEL might change that. In a national study of 48 colleges, the council found that students who completed some form of a prior-learning assessment had higher graduation rates than other students, and also completed their degrees faster.

The council has also surveyed institutions with prior-learning programs to collect recommendations for officials at other institutions who wish to start such assessments. Communicating well with administrators and faculty members topped the list. "The biggest challenge really comes from within," says Becky Klein-Collins, the council's director of research. "It requires a real mind shift."

Mr. Nienow, the professor at Valdosta State, says colleges must do more to engage professors who doubt the value of individualized assessment. In his case, a colleague's invitation to participate in planning sessions allowed him to ask questions of prior-learning experts from other colleges. The experience prompted him to think more creatively about how students might reveal what they had learned in other settings.

Still, Mr. Nienow thinks many of his colleagues either dislike the idea of assessing outside learning or simply ignore it altogether. "We teach as we're taught," he says. "Some students may have an inflated sense of what they know, but we have an inflated sense of what we do."


1. kmellendorf - March 16, 2010 at 09:57 am

I agree that this is a difficult thing to rate. However, it relates well to the concept often called "general education" or "core curriculum". Many students do not remember the specific facts from such courses. A primary reason to take general education courses is to prepare the student for learning, to expand the student's thought and action skills beyond what the first eighteen years of life can even begin to provide. As with traditional college courses, these credits for experience must never be seen as a free run. Proof of one has actually gained from these experiences, having gained them to a high enugh degree that one can explain them and use them, must be there. If we don't expect and demand such a thing, credit for experience will end up reduced to nothing more than a convenient version of financial aid: work for a year for pay so as to avoid a year of tuition. Do not let it lose its meaning, its significance.

2. 11274135 - March 16, 2010 at 01:09 pm

Credit for experience (not to be confused with AP or IB credit or credit for military training) makes sense in some cases. But places that offer to assess experience for credit often do it more for marketing purposes. I heard a presentation from someone from U of Phoenix a few years ago describing their assessment process (reasonably rigorous) and reporting how few credits they actually gave. The presenter also made clear that these credits were not "free." There was a susbstantial charge for assessing the experience. Although these charges are reasonable (the assessment is time consuming, difficult, and personalized), the students usually do not save any money. They do save some time to degree, if any credits are awarded. Notice above that Valdosta only awarded credit to 20 students. The article says nothing about how much the college charges for the assessent (and I assume they charge even if credits are not awarded).

3. melindajo612 - March 16, 2010 at 06:45 pm

A pioneer and national leader in the assessment of prior learning is Thomas Edison State College. Based in Trenton, NJ, Edison is part of the New Jersey State College system and has been serving students for decades with a combination of prior learning assessment, credit by examination, transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions, online courses, and other external means of earning degrees. The author, and others interested in expert information on the subject, may be interested to contact the Prior Learning Assessment office at tesc.edu, where I proudly worked for several years in the 1980s, while Edison was pioneering such programs.

4. bdbailey - March 19, 2010 at 07:25 am

I have done some Prior Learning Assessment for Thomas Edison State College. Their approach is sytematic and rigorous. The main complaint I get from students is - If I had realized it would be this much work, I might have taken the class instead. It is no shortcut. I was quite surprised to find no mention of them here.

5. rjhenry - March 19, 2010 at 07:43 am

Another good article on PLA.

6. bernardjsmith - March 19, 2010 at 09:04 am

Just to comment on 11274135's March 16 post, and to clarify the issue, at Empire State College no one awards and no one receives credit for "experience". Students who wish to be assessed for their prior learning are required to demonstrate their knowledge. This knowledge is knowledge (recognized by the academe as college level learning) acquired not through formal classroom instruction but gained through other kinds of experiences - life, work, avocational learning, training, etc. It is the student's demonstrable and demonstrated knowledge that is assessed when we talk about the assessment of experiential learning.
If that knowledge is viewed as meaningful within the academic community and if credit for it makes good sense in terms of the student's overall studies for the degree they are seeking then that knowledge (not the experience but the knowledge) is validated. Experience is NOT knowledge and experience is not what we at Empire State College assess for credit.

7. sahara - March 19, 2010 at 11:33 am

Leaving issues of cost aside to focus on the requirements for a degree:

Many, many "knowledgeable" people come to the college or university "knowing things" but not being able to write, research, demonstrate abstract thinking, understand Western and non-western cultural premises, synthesize data, and solve problems -- expected outcomes from a liberal arts or undergraduate professional degree.

The value of the experience of seeking the degree, in my mind, is still correlated with XXX number of hours of study in a defined program at the particular insitution.

Instead of giving away XX credit hours as "previously learned knowledge," why not just catapult the student into higher level course work, and still require the hours to earn the degree?

Giving away credit hours like that makes no sense for the student or the institution. Four years, or XXX hours, is not the same as 2.75 years, or the equivalent hours, and many employers recognize the difference. Furthermore, the students have cheated themselves out of the full experience, something many will regret later (yes, I hear it frequently now).

8. tgroleau - March 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

While I can see the potential for abuse of the portfolio evaluation approach, there's more potential for abuse in the many "independent study" courses that students take at my school. It sounds like most portfolio systems have standardized criteria and specific courses that students can get credit for. In the case of independent studies, it's usually some topic for which there is no regular course and, therefore, no pre-set standards. Therefore a single instructor/student pair can get away with almost anything.

9. johntoradze - March 19, 2010 at 01:27 pm

Before I finished my BSCS, I was designing large scale automation systems, delivering them (one a first success in its industry out of many attempts) and advising professors in the field. I knew this, and yes, I chose a college (then avante garde) that would allocate credit for work experience. I wrote up at least 500 pages for that credit, getting the permissions necessary to discuss the work. For it, I received some 45 credit hours.

I was naive then, and far more respectful of the academic enterprise than it deserved. I recognize now that what I submitted was far more than what is submitted for doctorates in that field. It should have been evaluated as such, and in a more sensible world I would have been mentored at least a little bit, rather than left entirely on my own.

I graduated with a BSCS, had more career, then re-entered for a full "bricks and mortar" PhD, completing that in 3 years. Having now learned how lacking in substance most PhD theses are, I look back and I think that the way universities today operate relative to credit for work experience related material is rather appalling even for those universities that provide it.

In grad school I ran across a similar problem - the occassional master's student who delivers a thesis with more merit than PhDs usually deliver. The arbitrariness of a university refusing to judge work on its merit, but judging instead based on checking off boxes and the program one is in is ridiculous.

In both cases, academia needs to get back to a focus on real merit and knowledge. Just as faculty (and definitely the dean of grad studies) should review masters theses and upgrade work that is PhD quality to the appropriate degree level - so should work experience that shows ability beyond the norm for PhD work be properly recognized. I would go so far as to say that a student granted a masters degree should be able to petition for evaluation of the thesis by graduate studies for a PhD. And graduate studies departments should be watching for such, and suggest to masters students that they do so where it is warranted.

There are serious problems in academia today, with the university floundering for workplace relevance. What superior incoming students need for work experience evaluation is proper mentoring to credit their work and figure out where they could use broadening. It takes some work, and that work by the university should be paid for. But this is what the academic enterprise requires now. Doing so goes back to the roots of ancient universities. Even today, at a few universities, a student may submit a book for evaluation of a doctorate without coursework.

Work experience evaluation will make university degrees more relevant to employment.

10. lomalinda - March 19, 2010 at 01:38 pm

Again, someone with an empty statement, "Having now learned how lacking in substance most PhD theses are'. Dear johntoradze, do you have any evidence to suport this claim.

11. lomalinda - March 19, 2010 at 01:39 pm

Again, someone with an empty statement, "Having now learned how lacking in substance most PhD theses are'. Dear johntoradze, do you have any evidence to support this claim.

12. johntoradze - March 19, 2010 at 04:30 pm

Indeed I do lomalinda. I have been through a PhD program at a major university, very well respected. You must forgive my sometimes scathing indictment of doctorates today. I have read through quite a few theses now, both masters and PhD. Few are significant research. Most are best forgotten. Few indeed are original and professors know this very well. More are junk than are worth reading. It isn't hard to read PhD theses. They are posted online. Go ahead and read them.

The PhD experience consists mostly of running through the graduate student labor force mill. In that context, one must somehow get a committee to sign off on a thesis after passing an oral exam. The process is fraught with arbitrariness, internecine politics, etcetera.

When lucky, a grad student finds a good lab, is able to work with a thesis advisor who cares, is interested in what the student is doing and has money to do things. When unlucky, a grad student crosses a nasty piece of work for being honest and careful (i.e. doing what a grad student wants), runs afoul of a corrupt chair or two who are hiding falsified data and gets flogged out of the program. I have seen both ends.

The doctoral process today produces individuals by the thousands like Rita411 who posted to another article about proudly cutting corners, and those are the hoi polloi who are trying to populate academia today. The whole enterprise is barrelling downhill toward ignominy lomalinda.

13. arrive2__net - March 20, 2010 at 04:12 am

A rigorous system for recognizing prior learning seems like an effective idea for the student and for the institution. In my opinion, the purpose of earning the credential is to demonstrate that you have the skills. Learning gained by experience may in some situations be of a higher quality than learning from reading and lectures. It seems to me some kind of standard assessment, like an exam or a content paper ... would be called for, where the applications for credit in a particular course is frequent (where CLEP does not apply). I think students should be made more aware that the PLA-type credit may be available, otherwise they may just assume they have to take the long course, and there are prospective students who might not try for the degree if they don't know that something like PLA could make it possible for them to complete a degree with reasonable timelines and cost.

Bernard Schuster

14. lomalinda - March 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Johntoradze, now I think you are on to something. But people like Rita411 are the ones not being able to find academic jobs, which some might call Karma.

I have run into many people that think they deserve a PhD based on their past experiences, but to me PhD is more than that. Yes, PhD experience involves jumping through some hoops, but these hoops if design properly, will enrich the experience.

Are there bad PhD programs out there? Yes; does the process need improvement? Yes; but these do not automatically qualify “life experience” as an alternative or equal to PhD process. No matter what the flaws of the system are, we do not need shortcuts.

I agree that some courses could be waived, for example using CLEP, but PhD is more than testing and I think you will agree with this point.

Finally, I am curious, what do you mean by significant results & originality? Assume that you have total power and you can change everything with a blink of an eye, what would you do? Thanks.

15. bernardjsmith - March 22, 2010 at 04:12 pm

Two comments: leaving aside whether it is possible or even practical to consider whether doctoral level work could routinely be achieved through experiential learning without guidance from members of the academic community, I don't think anyone involved in the article was talking about PLA outside of the context of a baccalaureate degree.

The second point is that while exams like CLEP deal with learning that looks very much like the learning covered in traditional classrooms, it is quite possible to assess learning that looks very different but which is still college level, if by "college level" we mean the kind of analytical and critical approaches the student takes to the material.
CLEP deals with what is called a "convergent approach" (what does a student need to know about US history to get credit for "US History II" . "Divergent" approaches to knowledge turn that kind of question on its head and ask "What is the title of the learning that best describes what this or that student knows". Such a view of knowledge neither begins nor ends with the conventions of the academe that demarcate 'knowledge' in our society, but rather tries to treat seriously the understanding that knowledge can be acquired anywhere

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