© giulia forsythe 2012

Fain, P. (2012) New momentum of an old idea Inside Higher Education, November 12

This excellent article discusses new developments in prior learning assessment: ‘The granting of college credit for learning that occurs outside of the academic setting’

There are several factors that are driving a renewed interest in prior learning assessment, which has been around for many years:

  • the drive to get more students to complete degrees in the USA, which has over 40 million people in the population who started a post-secondary program but never completed
  • adult students are more likely to earn a degree or credential if they receive credit for prior learning
  • prior-learning assessment is one way students could earn credits for what they learn in MOOCs
  • a growth in interest in competency-based learning, which places strong emphasis on taking account of prior learning experience.

The article looks particularly at the growth of prior learning assessment in two states: Tennessee and New York.

The state of Tennessee has produced a comprehensive document that sets out recommended standards for prior learning assessment:. It sets out the terms and conditions under which Tennessee state universities and colleges ‘award and/or transfer credits toward a degree or certificate based on Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), and to provide consistent and accessible methods for students to earn these credits.’ This was developed through extensive consultation with university and college faculty and administrators throughout the state. The standards applied are rigorous, but once PLA is accepted by one institution they are transferable to all other state institutions in Tennessee. Any institution considering strengthening its PLA protocols would benefit strongly from reading this document.

Another state putting a strong push behind prior learning assessment is the State University of New York system. Empire State College in particular has for many years operated a thorough and rigorous process of prior learning assessment, based on a portfolio of a student’s prior learning experiences, and a 50-60 page paper on admission. Empire State College is currently focusing on assessing learning based on open educational resources, such as MOOCs.

Other state university systems with system-wide PLA policies are Wisconsin and Penn State.

In Canada, all British Columbia public post-secondary institutions offer PLA services to their students, though not necessarily in every program, and its Ministry offers a set of resources on PLA for instructors and administrators.

The Canadian Association of Prior Learning Assessment held its annual conference in October this year, and the conference web site provides abstracts of a wide range of papers on current practice in Canada.

The Prior Learning Centre in Canada offers a range of services for individuals and employers on a fee-for-service basis.

Athabasca University has a Centre for Learning Accreditation that enables individuals to apply for university credits based on their prior learning. Many other institutions now offer similar services within their own institutions. What makes the Tennessee development so interesting is that the credits gained through PLA are transferable across the system.


Although there is still a great deal of faculty resistance to PLA, in general it is not an easy or ‘soft’ route to earning credit.

Done properly, it is not cheap, either, requiring a good deal of time investment from both students preparing their portfolios, and from faculty who assess it. This is one of several reasons why faculty need to be involved in developing and applying standards for PLA.

PLA is not a panacea, but it is important that in a world of lifelong learning, there are effective means of accepting appropriate prior learning. All publicly funded post-secondary institutions should have such policies in place.




  1. IN 2004, I decided to pursue an online bachelor’s degree in Education and at that time UNB had the best PLA program. I took the “Preparing for Prior Learning Assessment” course for credit, created my e-portfolio and was awarded 48 credits toward the 138 credit program (now UNB’s PLA for the BEd (Adult Education) is a maximum 42 credits for 120 credit program). Without PLA, and as a mature student working full-time, I would not have completed this degree. The extended time and cost of courses would have made it impractical.


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