Prior Learning Assessment & Competency-Based Education

“What can you do with what you know?”

Competency-based education (CBE) recognizes that learning can happen in many different ways; CBE rewards the demonstration of competency rather than the time spent learning. All students bring a variety of knowledge and skills developed over their lifetime of experience—whether they are 18, 40, or 72—and CBE programs aim to recognize when prior learning aligns with the competencies required for a degree.

Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA for short, may not be widely practiced but it has a rich tradition in higher education. Transferring course credit from one institution to another, earning credit by exams, including the Advanced Placement test, and PLA are common methods for giving academic credit for the college-level learning students bring with them.

Several colleges that are developing competency-based education programs as part of the Breakthrough Models Incubator are leveraging their own institution’s strengths in PLA. Excelsior College and Antioch University are just two examples.

In contrast, College for America and Northern Arizona University, two NGLC Breakthrough Models grant recipients, are not using traditional PLA within their competency-based degree programs. They decided to recognize prior learning by embedding the assessment of it within the competency path of the degree program.

College for America: Project-Based Assessment

College for America is a project-based program. During a convening of the Higher Ed Breakthrough Models and the Breakthrough Models Incubator in Anaheim this week, Yvonne Simon of CfA shared that students must complete projects, which address one-to-three competencies each, and submit them to reviewers who determine if the student has reached “mastery” or “not yet.”

Students who have previously acquired the sufficient knowledge and skills for a particular project tend to complete that project more quickly. Once a reviewer determines mastery, they can move on to the next project.

In essence, determining mastery of a student’s project serves as PLA at College for America.

Northern Arizona University: Pre-Test Assessments

Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning division dissects competencies into a series of lessons, explained NAU’s Rebecca Garrett. Each lesson involves a pre-test, a set of gated content, and a post-test. If a student is determined to be competent via the pre-test (by an exam score of 87%), she or he can move on to the next lesson. If not, the student accesses the lesson’s content and then must demonstrate competence at the post-test.

A student with sufficient prior learning, therefore, would be able to demonstrate competence at the pre-test.  That student would then be able to move on to the next lesson or the next competency set—focusing their time and energy on the competencies they still need to develop.

In essence, successfully passing pre-tests serves as PLA at NAU.

Pros and Cons of Embedded PLA

There are benefits and challenges to the embedded approach. College for America anticipated that students would be frustrated that they could not “test out” of any projects, but the college has not encountered any resistance from students about their approach.

One advantage identified by NAU’s Fred Hurst is that the portfolio process behind most PLA programs is a time-consuming process for both the student and the college. The embedded approach reduces the burden on and integrates the process for both the student and the faculty.

On the other hand, it is a challenge to design a pre-test that assesses competence independent of the specific content of a lesson, such as a specific work of literature or a particular time period in history.

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