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

Sarah Weeden for The Chronicle

Shelly Stam, a 44-year-old student at Empire State College, earned credits by writing about her life experiences.
March 14, 2010

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."