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Guide to Prior Learning Assessment for Educators

What is Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)?

Prior learning assessment (PLA), whether through portfolio assessment, credit-by-exam, or review of credentials or training programs, is designed to help learners earn college credit for the college-level knowledge they already possess and can demonstrate. Students can take advantage of a number of PLA options, including credit-by-exam, portfolio assessment, academic program reviews of non-collegiate instruction, and competency-based assessments. Thomas Edison State University not only offers its own PLA programs, but also accepts programs administered by others such as CLEP, DSST, and the American Council on Education, among others.

How does PLA compare to Classroom-Based Learning?

  • All prior learning assessments are based on alignment with course learning outcomes: to earn credit, students must demonstrate mastery of the learning outcomes they would have achieved in the equivalent college course. The PLA process has been found academically sound and thoroughly tested after 40 years of national implementation and review. Students who earn credit through PLA persist and graduate at higher rates than students without PLA credit.
  • In addition, recent studies have shown that in many cases, learners who earn college credit through various forms of PLA take just as many, if not more, courses at their home institutions as learners who do not bring in PLA credits. For these learners, PLA provides the opportunity to take more advanced course work; more importantly, it validates what they already have learned, and gives them the means to persist and to graduate.

Why should your school offer PLA?

  • If you do decide to launch such a program it will send a clear message to adult students that your institution is welcoming and supportive of their educational needs. Adults on campus have always encouraged more discourse and candid discussion. Adults returning to school are driven to degree completion, and are motivated by strong grades.
  • The faculty members that assess individual portfolios often come away with "real life" case studies to take back to their classroom instruction.
  • Since portfolio assessment incorporates college level writing, critical thinking, analytical skills, and the integration of theory and practice, completed portfolios can be useful departmentally in identifying assets and deficits of course or programmatic outcomes. For students, the creation of a portfolio that documents their learning and experience can be a useful tool in aligning their education with career goals.
  • Successful portfolios can bring about student opportunities to present or to publish, and faculty are often in positions of mentoring relationships to those who wish to publish or present.
  • For some, it saves them having to pay for courses whose content they have already mastered, and can help them complete a degree at significant cost and time savings.

What is NJ PLAN?

The NJ Prior Learning Assessment Network (NJ PLAN) is a New Jersey-centered consortium of higher education institutions designed to provide access to prior learning assessment programs and services for adult and non-traditional learners at any participating institution. NJ PLAN leverages Thomas Edison State University’s long-standing expertise in this field to provide partner schools and their students with a centralized prior learning assessment service.

If you are interested in offering PLA services to your students, but do not have the infrastructure in place to create such a program, please contact us to find out more about the NJ PLAN, or visit our NJ PLAN website.

What is the National Institute on the Assessment of Adult Learning?

If you are interested in learning more about Prior Learning Assessment, and how you might go about setting up a PLA program at your institution, we invite you to join us at the annual National Institute on the Assessment of Adult Learning. There you can learn first-hand from experts in the fields of Prior Learning Assessment, Distance Education, Competency-Based Education, and Workplace Education and Assessment. The goal of the institute is to address issues of interest to novices and experienced professionals alike. The National Institute also serves as a venue to share experiences in a casual environment and to network with colleagues.