Improving Student Success with PLA PortfoliosElizabeth Matthews | Assistant Professor in the Center for Worker Education, City College of New York
Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a pathway allowing students to earn college credit through experience or exam. In this article, I am going to cover one specific type of assessment—the PLA portfolio. Many colleges and universities that serve non-traditional students offer a PLA portfolio option in order to allow students who have valuable work experience relevant to specific college-level courses, obtain college credit for what they know.
These programs tend to be quite popular with non-traditional students—many of whom juggle multiple work, family and personal obligations with college study. Since adult students are the fastest growing segment pursuing undergraduate education, it is prudent to offer legitimate strategies to aid them with retention and progress towards their degree.
PLA Portfolios can be an option for students who come from a wide range of professional fields.For example, a student who has worked in the business field for some time prior to returning (or starting) college studies may have already met the course outcomes for an entry-level business course. Similarly, students who have backgrounds in music, film, volunteer work, board service, or child-care may find that links between their professional work and an academic course.
The Council for Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL) provides extensive guidelines for the development of a quality portfolio. Generally speaking, students must demonstrate their “learning” of the course outcomes through the writing of an extensive narrative statement that describes how the previous professional work meets the course objectives for the petitioned course and the inclusion of documentation that the learning outcomes were met. In order to demonstrate this, students can include copies of workshop syllabi, a worksheet showing skill, or even a musical composition that the student has written. Once the portfolio is complete, it is reviewed by faculty evaluators. If the student successfully completes the process they are awarded the credits for the college-level course.
PLA is an attractive option for non-traditional students for several reasons. It can serve as a viable pathway for degree acceleration and may also save the students money, since they usually pay only a nominal fee for the processing/evaluation of their work and not the full tuition charge for the credits earned through the presentation of a successful portfolio. Furthermore,when students are in the process of developing a PLA portfolio, they truly engage the meta-cognitive processes. As they link their own experiences with course outcomes, they actively reflect on how they learned the covered content. In many cases, students will conduct some additional research to further contemplate the theoretical concepts that they used at work, but at the time, did not realize. This in itself is a wonderful learning opportunity and according to a recent CAEL survey 83 percent of students “experienced a sense of personal pride upon completion of their learning portfolio.”
Developing an in-depth PLA portfolio is an extremely rigorous process. Accordingly, students pursuing this process may encounter a great deal of difficulty articulating their previous professional experience into a specific course. Once students identify an appropriate course, they frequently struggle with connecting their professional work with the theories or concepts covered in the course. Unfortunately, this can cause a great deal of frustration and can lead to a very de-motivating experience for the student.
At the Center for Worker Education at the City University of New York, we tried to facilitate students’ success with the PLA process by providing a semi-structured process to guide small groups of students. A brief six-week online workshop was offered to students beginning the PLA process. The workshop, led by an experienced PLA faculty member provided a semi-structured environment where students:
1) Discussed their professional work and intended courses;
2) Received peer feedback from other students and the professor on possible options for course petition;
3) Learned how to investigate the research/theory of the course and
4) Began to collect appropriate documentation to support their portfolios.
The workshop’s final deliverable was an outline of the portfolio. The faculty member provided feedback on the document and students then, had an additional 12 weeks to finalize the portfolio before submitting it to the assessment coordinator for a formal review.
We found that this process provided a more structured environment for students where the expectations for a quality portfolio were clearly outlined. Furthermore, students had both the support of a faculty member and a peer cohort. Once students had a clear and feasible outline for the full portfolio, they were in a better position to complete the portfolio at a high standard.
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 CAEL,(n.d.), How PLA contributes to academic success. Retrieved from http://www.cael.org/what-we-do/prior-learning-assessment
Author Perspective: Educator