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Exploring and Understanding Prior Learning Credits

AUDIO | Exploring and Understanding Prior Learning Credits
Greater acceptance of prior learning can have a very positive impact on completion rates among adult students, but administrators need more support from state and federal policymakers to help expand the program.
The following interview is with Dennis Lettman and Beth Gerasimiak, administrators at the University of Toledo. Lettman and Gerasimiak have been active in creating a robust Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) program at their institution to help increase access, retention and completion for non-traditional students. In this interview, Lettman and Gerasimiak discuss the process of putting a PLA program together, and share their thoughts on the expansion of PLA and what it means for higher education.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. When thinking about college-level prior learning, what are a few different channels adult students can go through to gain this knowledge?

Dennis Lettman (DL): There are many different ways, experiences that a student could gain learning that could translate into college-level learning. The importance of all this, though, is not what the experience itself is or how much time is spent on the experience; it’s actually, “What is the learning that has been accomplished through the experience and how do you document that learning?”

There’s a number of ways in doing that. Probably the most common form of prior learning comes from work experience. Especially with adults, as we all know, adults work full time …  adults often take time off of school — they may begin a degree, but then because of life circumstances they need to stop out for a period of time — because they’ve gotten married or had a family or have other needs or obligations or perhaps go into the military. So, they would go to their work and through work they may gain really good, credible learning through their work experience and, at some point in time, may decide to come back to school and be able to use the learning from the work experience towards college credit.

So, work experience is one very important form. There is also volunteer work … And another really important way in which one can get college credit is through military experience, and I think Beth would probably describe that in a bit more detail.

Beth Gerasimiak (BG): Those who join the military usually go through different training while they’re in the military and then they can also have credit from their MOS (their military occupational specialty). So, with the University of Toledo, almost every student can get credit for their basic training through an American Council of Education transcript recommendation … will depend if they have a SMART (Sailor-Marine American Council on Education Registry Transcript) or perhaps a Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) transcript. The AARTS (Army American Council on Education Registry Transcript) and SMARTS … is a transcript that comes with credit that is recommended through the American Council on Education. So, it covers whatever training each solider has been through.

2.  As prior learning becomes more popular, what impact do you think it’s going to have on the ubiquity of the credit hour as a measure for learning and progress toward a degree?

DL: The credit hour dates all the way back to 19-something with the Carnegie units and really has been, and is, the measure of achievement in college. The credit hour also actually equates to seat time — as we used to call it — how much time a student spends in class. Normally, one credit hour is equal to 50 minutes in class and then the associated out-of-class time with study and [preparation] and so forth.

It’s very difficult to equate anything to do with prior learning based upon a timeframe like that. You can’t say one hour of on-the-job work experience equates to one hour of classroom credit. So it does create a challenge.

There’s more and more discussion now going on regarding competency-based learning. With competency-based learning, you actually are working toward meeting competencies as opposed to credit hours, per se. And once you’ve completed the competencies in a given program or course, then you would be given credit. Some schools are ahead of others in terms of moving toward competency-based learning. With that, it really does help for prior learning because you’re able to actually document whether or not a student has achieved certain competencies.

3. By the same token, how do institutions determine whether this knowledge can be awarded college credit?

BG: For our institution we use … subject matter experts. A faculty member or a chair person that is in the field for which the credit is being reviewed will then look at the content and weave the course match model. So they’re actually comparing it to learning outcomes of specific courses and looking at what the student has submitted as their knowledge and background to those learning outcomes to determine if this student certainly has met the learning outcomes in the course to gain credit.

We’ve also used the credit-by-exam model. So it could be the case depending on how the courses best to be measured that they could take a final exam or an exam the instructor has created specifically for gaining credit for the course.

You can also do the standardized testing, so if they wanted to do CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing, it’s run through the College Board, so it’s not through the institution, but if there’s a standardized test that might be the best method to demonstrate learning for core courses. …

Military students, they might bring in what we call non-collegiate sponsored learning, so if they participated in a professional organization or a professional exam they may have transcripts from the American Council on Education for some credit recommendations and to view those and see if they have course equivalents.

Another model that is out there that we currently do not have in place — but I know some schools do — is for the “block credit.” So, if a student has a large grasp and depth of knowledge, but perhaps their specific learning doesn’t fit nicely into one specific course, they can present a portfolio with a lot of learning knowledge toward specific subjects and gain some block credit.

DL: There’s really four main ways in which prior learning can be assessed. One way is through, as we mentioned, either department exams — challenge credit by exam method — where a faculty member, someone in the department will actually administer a test to a student. Sometimes it’s the final exam for a course. … There is the individualized assessment or portfolio assessment, as it’s called, where a student actually puts together an actual portfolio — it could be hard copy, it could be an electronic version — where they’re actually providing evidence, artifacts and documentation of their experience and the learning they sit through the experience. That is then turned over to, as Beth mentioned, one of these subject matter experts … to evaluate the portfolio and then determine if credit can be given.

There’s also the standardized testing — as mentioned, CLEP test, DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support) and so forth — a number of these things are actually recommended through the American Council on Education (ACE). Often times, we would see ACE-recommended credit coming through and since we are a school that participates in ACE recommendation, we will accept credit based upon that.

And then the fourth would be the non-college programs through military service, which could be apprenticeships and things like that.

4. From the institutional perspective, what are the most significant challenges involved with awarding credit for prior learning?

DL: First and foremost, in this institution and in most institutions — especially the public institution — is the importance of having faculty support and faculty buy-in. We could not do what it is we want to do and need to do if we didn’t have faculty support. It’s very, very important for faculty to buy-in and support and that’s also a big challenge because there are many faculty who either don’t understand what prior learning assessment is or they had misperceptions — which, often times, are of the negative nature — about what PLA is. So it’s very, very important for us to be able to go through and allay those myths; to provide hard research and information, case studies, what have you, that really show that prior learning is very positive, is very helpful.

Often times faculty think we’re giving away credit through prior learning, that it’s of lesser quality than would be through a more traditional approach through learning; they’re skeptical of that, they’re fearful they’re going to have reduction in enrollment in their courses.

So, it’s important for us, who really are the main advocates for the program, to really get with faculty to help them better understand how prior learning can benefit them and benefit the student to get them on board with it. So, the very, very most important challenge.

Another one has to be financial aid. Oftentimes, the federal financial aid rules — and in-state as well — are not what I call PLA-friendly, in that they don’t necessarily allow students to receive financial aid to pay for credits and the experience — the assessments and so forth — that often times are charged to students to receive prior learning. That just does not count in terms of what financial aid will pay for.

Even though prior learning very often is at a much-reduced cost than would be for a normal gaining credit in the class and so forth; even though it’s reduced costs, it’s still a financial burden that sometimes is difficult for adult students to be able to handle.

Another challenge at the institutional level is not only the awarding of prior learning credit but how it will apply toward one’s degree requirement. And this is very, very important because many programs will accept credit for prior learning, but accepting it is one thing and actually being able to count is another. Being able to count means it actually is meeting certain degree requirements, not just adding to the amount of credits a student has, but actually counting toward something. So, I would say those are among the major challenges.

5. How important is a wider recognition of prior learning when it comes to increasing degree completion among adult students?

DL: I think that awareness, recognition, promotion, making students and prospective students aware of what the opportunity is, is extremely important. You could have a great prior learning program and have all kinds of opportunities there, but if nobody knows about it, what good is it?

Since prior learning — it’s not new, per se, but it is really taking hold more and more and — is not something your mainstream adult student really knows about, it’s very, very important that any institution [increases awareness of prior learning]. Even beyond individual institutions and the state level, the federal level with all this push toward bringing adults back to college, reducing costs, reducing time to degree, making things very connected to the workforce — all these kind of things that are so important these days in higher education, prior learning really can play an integral role in that.

It’s very, very important to make sure that in promotional materials and recruitment efforts, that prior learning really be featured … in a very prominent way because it really, really does make a difference. The research shows in a number of different studies that prior learning does decrease time to degree, shortens time to degree; it [also] reduces costs. When students know about prior learning, it is a very powerful recruitment tool. Students will seek out institutions they believe offer such programs as this. So the promotional part of it, the recognition, is extremely important.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of prior learning when it comes to higher education for adults, and the steps that need to be taken by both institutions and government bodies to make sure prior learning is more accessible?

DL: Here in Ohio, our Ohio Board of Regents, which governs higher education in the state, has just now instituted a statewide effort to really try to come up with some ways prior learning can be improved and expanded in the state.

Individual institutions may have policies and procedures, but sometimes those conflict with state policies and procedures, and of course the state always trumps the individual institution. The state can do a lot to really help in terms of consistency across institutions, transparency. Students want to transfer and we all know we have a very mobile student body these days — a lot of transferring going on. It’s very, very important how prior learning is transcripted and how it is applied when transferred.

So, those are efforts that many, many states are involved in right now, Ohio being one just getting into it. And the more that can happen to legislation or policy at the state level [the more it’s] going to make a big difference down here at the local level.

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Key Takeaways

  • The rise of prior learning assessment (PLA) could lead to a move from credit hours toward competency-based assessments.
  • There are a number of organizations that help to test a student’s prior learning, but institutions can also create their own assessment methods.
  • Achieving faculty buy-in and convincing stakeholders across the institution that PLA does not equate to selling credits is a critical hurdle to overcome.
  • Students who pursue prior learning credits typically do not receive a great deal of financial support.

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