Thousands of students have earned tens of thousands of college credits through prior learning assessment (PLA) by demonstrating college-level knowledge acquired outside the classroom.
So, why not you? As an adult, you may likely have knowledge of one or more subjects for which you wish you could earn college credit toward your degree.
You just have no idea how to do it.
To help guide you through the world of prior learning assessment, Todd Siben, former assistant director of the Center for the Assessment of Learning (he retired in June 2017) and PLA expert, shares his insights on 17 of the most common questions that students ask when considering PLA. So if you’re interested in determining how what you already know could be turned into college credit, then these answers may be exactly what you are looking for.
Question 1. I have many years of experience. How many credits can I get for this?
Todd: We do not award credit for experience, and we do not equate “years” to “credits.” The University awards credit for college-level knowledge gained as a result of your experience, so the number of credits you can earn depends on your degree program, your breadth and depth of knowledge, and whether that knowledge is equivalent to college courses.
Question 2. How many credits can I earn through PLA?
Todd: There is no limit to the number of credits you can earn. PLA is only limited by the scope and depth of college-level, course-equivalent knowledge that you have and how that applies to your degree. So it’s great if you have a lot of knowledge, but if it doesn’t apply toward your degree, then I do not encourage that you use PLA.
Question 3. How many pages are in a portfolio?
Todd: I’ve seen wonderful, brilliant portfolios of 8-10 pages, and completely unacceptable portfolios of 60 pages or more. Portfolio is not about volume. It’s about your ability to articulate and prove that you have the knowledge related to that course, and your task is to address the learning outcomes of the equivalent course, and demonstrate to the subject matter expert (SME) that you have this knowledge.
Question 4. How do I get credit from nonaccredited institutions?
Todd: The University does not accept credit for courses from schools that are not regionally accredited. However, credit-by-exam, such as our TECEP® program or the nationally-recognized CLEP® and DSST® programs, may be used in such instances; portfolio assessment may be an option, especially when you have additional “real world” experience. You can approach it based upon what you know as a result of attending a nonaccredited institution, personal research or work-related training. It doesn’t matter how the learning happened; you are awarded credit for learning the knowledge, not the experience of attending.
Question 5. Can I earn graduate-level credit for prior learning?
Todd: Yes, you can. Grad PLA is offered for those who want to complete a portfolio to earn graduate-level credit for their graduate-level prior learning. You work with a mentor within an eight-week or 12-week graduate term, depending on your program. Grad PLA tuition is the same as an online course per credit. So what’s the advantage since the costs are the same? First, you already have the knowledge. You do not have to buy the books or take as much time to complete it as you would the other courses. You don’t have to take as much time to complete it as you would the other courses. Then you can focus your efforts on the other courses. However, there is a limit to the number of credits you can transfer into a graduate program through Grad PLA, graduate-level credits earned at other institutions and graduate-level credits evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE).
Question 6. What kind of assistance is offered for those pursuing the Grad PLA process?
Todd: Grad PLAs receive guidance in the form of a graduate mentor who is assigned to review your final portfolio submission. You register for Grad PLA and submit a draft proposal to the mentor; the mentor will then critique and offer feedback that you can incorporate into a second draft. If additional feedback is required, you can incorporate that, too. Eventually, you will submit a final draft.
Question 7. What if I can’t do this?
Todd: We have had students of all ages, all backgrounds and all degrees who have completed portfolios. Nearly 50,000 portfolios have been done. If you have a reason why you can’t do this, I have at least two that say you can. If you bring us background, if you bring us knowledge as a result of training and experience, we will help you find a way. I encourage you to take advantage of that.
Question 8. How is a course subject identified or perhaps challenged?
Todd: We have a searchable database of more than 4,000 course descriptions. Say you worked in a clothing store, so you go to the database and search for courses that may mention “clothing” or “retail.” Now, say the first course that comes up is Retail Management, and you read the description. Do you know this or not? If you do, then this is an opportunity for you to earn credit. Next, does this course fit into your degree somewhere? That’s what an academic advisor can check on for you. Tell your advisor that you saw this course, that you have a lot of background in it and you would like to earn credit for it through portfolio assessment. Your advisor will tell you whether the course fits into your degree program or not. If it does, then your next step is to determine how you want to pursue this. Do you want to do a single course PLA, or are there others you want to take? If so, you might want to take the PLA-100 or PLA-200 option because it can save you tuition down the road.
Question 9. What do Subject-Matter Experts (SMEs) look for in a portfolio to award credit for a particular course?
Todd: A portfolio is a package of information that includes a document called a narrative. In this narrative, you will write about your knowledge and background by answering these questions:
- What do I know about this subject?
- How, when, where and why did I learn it?
- How have I used this knowledge?
- What can I provide that shows I have this knowledge?
With that document, you include proof; that proof is called evidence. That could be letters of support, certificates of training, performance reviews from supervisors or samples of your work. So if you’re doing a portfolio for a course titled Beginning Piano, your proof might include letters from people who know you saying that you play piano, a program mentioning your name as a piano player and/or a YouTube video of you playing piano, along with a narrative that addresses the knowledge that you have and the learning experiences that you have gone through. If you can do that, you can earn credit.
You then upload your portfolio to your personal Google site, and you register for the credits. The SME then logs into your Google site and determines if you’ve answered all the questions adequately, and, if you have, you get the credit. Then, you can just replicate the process and continue to earn portfolio credit for other subjects.
Question 10. How does registration work for portfolio assessment? Do you register for it during a specific term? If you identify four courses, and you register for them during that 12-week term, do you have to finish all four portfolios in 12 weeks?
Todd: If you’re looking to use portfolio, take PLA-200 after PLA-100, which tells you how to create a portfolio, plus you’ll earn credit for taking the course. You can take as much time as you need to write those portfolios. Maybe it will take you a week; maybe it will take you a year. How long it takes depends on how long it will take you to write it. It’s not an overwhelming process. Once the portfolio is ready, you upload it to your Google site. Then you request to register for your portfolio for the next term. The SME assigned to review your portfolio then has the rest of the term to read it, but they usually do so within two or three weeks.
However, it’s important to mention that you are under no obligation to go further than PLA-200 if you don’t want to. If you take the course and decide that you don’t want to submit any portfolios, you don’t have to. Certainly, you have the tools and the skills, but you are under no obligation.
Question 11. How is PLA recorded on your transcript and how do other institutions perceive that credit?
Todd: It’s recorded on your transcript just as every other course is; it has a course number, title, number of credits and grade. If you take an online course with us, you’ll see A, B, C, etc., in the grade section. If you take PLA, credit-by-exam or academic program review, you will see CR – credit awarded or credit earned - recorded in the grade section. It roughly stands for passed, equivalent to a minimum of a C grade. It does not impact your GPA.
Question 12. What if I’m not sure whether the University or ACE has reviewed the license or certification I earned?
Todd: First, check the University's Office of Professional Learning Reviews (OPLR) and American Council on Education (ACE) websites to see if those particular certifications have been reviewed. You can also email OPLR and ACE to ask them if your credentials or certifications have been reviewed for college credit. If they have, OPLR and/or ACE will provide you with instructions on what to do to have those credits awarded.
If the credential has not been reviewed, then this could be an opportunity for you to earn credit by portfolio. For example, the New Jersey Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification has been reviewed and determined to be worth college credit. So if you have a current NJ EMT certification, and you submit the appropriate documentation for that, we will grant you the 6 credits that this particular credential has been determined to be worth. If you have an EMT license from six or seven other states, there is reciprocity for that review. But for the rest of the states, we don’t grant credit for every EMT license from every state because, oddly enough, the training for that is not standard in every state. So if you have background in that subject and you want to earn credit as a result of your EMT training and experience, that’s an area where you could write a portfolio and earn credit. The evidence you would provide might include your certifications, letters of support, letters of recognition, information about the curriculum you were responsible for covering during training and/or any reports you had to write in response to an emergency call. I’ve even seen a student create a mock video of how they would respond as an EMT to certain medical situations.
Essentially, if you have a credential that has been reviewed and determined to be worth college credit, we will certainly award credit. If you have a credential that hasn’t been reviewed or awarded credit, you still have the opportunity to earn that credit via portfolio assessment or credit-by-exam, if there is an exam that covers that subject area.
Question 13. Can I work with an academic advisor to identify specific credits for which I could use PLA that will apply toward my degree?
Todd: Advisors are certainly very familiar with what kind of credit applies to what degree. So, for example, if you are looking for a communications degree, and you have a lot of business background, there are a limited number of places in a communications degree where business credit will fit. But an advisor can certainly tell you what applies to your degree and what does not.
If you look in the database and identify maybe a dozen or half-dozen potential portfolios you think you can earn credit for, then ask your advisor if those credits will apply to your degree.
Question 14. Do I submit one portfolio for several subjects or one portfolio per subject?
Todd: A portfolio is completed per subject. So if you have a background in management, marketing, accounting and finance, each one of those subjects is a portfolio in and of itself because it will be read by an SME in that field.
Now, you can drill that down even further. If you have an extensive background in management, you may want to earn credit for Project Management (PJM-510) or Managing People at Work (MAN-307). Those are two separate portfolios. Or, if you have a background in corporate finance and nonprofit finance, those are also two separate subjects, or two separate portfolios.
Your portfolio is a package that you put together that discusses your knowledge and your background relevant to a particular course. Can you use information in more than one portfolio? Yes. Can you use same letters of reference in more than one portfolio? Yes. Can you use the same certifications? If they are relevant, yes.
In some cases, it is possible to overlap or cross-reference information as a result of your background and training in a portfolio. For example, if you are doing a portfolio for a collection of courses that are sequential - like Piano I, Piano II, Piano III, Piano IV, Piano V and Piano VI - that is in effect a single, 18-credit portfolio that you would submit all at once. That’s not six individual portfolios. That’s one portfolio proving that you have knowledge at the level of Piano VI, so we can deduce that you should be awarded credit for Piano I through V at the same time. We call that a cluster or a sequential portfolio. You pay for all 18 credits, you register for all 18 credits, but you write one portfolio.
Question 15. How do I know which prior learning assessment method to use? How do I know if I should take a credit-by-exam or portfolio demonstrating my knowledge in a specific area?
Todd: There are only about 150 exams, and there are about 4,000 portfolio options. So clearly, there are a lot more options to choose from when it comes to portfolios. But the really good thing about the exam is that if you have the knowledge that’s being tested on that exam, it will only take about two hours to get through it. These exams cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 to $120 per exam, so in two hours, for about $120, it’s a fairly efficient use of your time and money.
Every exam offered has review information on their website. For example, the TECEP® test description for a particular subject covers everything that is on the TECEP® exam. Just take the sample test questions and see how you do. There are certain degrees for which exams are well suited. For example, the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BSBA) degree program in General Management can be completed almost entirely by exams right now. There are many exams that fit into a lot of slots for that degree. If you have more broad-based knowledge in a variety of subjects, there are exams available in a variety of areas. Most of these exams typically fulfill your general education requirements.
For me, as an advisor, I generally advocate that your first option should be by exam because it’s the least expensive in terms of cost and the least invasive on your time schedule. So if you can earn the credit in two hours, rather than 12 weeks, that’s going to be to your advantage. Then you can spend more time on the parts of your degree that require more attention and focus to earn the credit.
Question 16. What if my work experience was some time ago, and I don’t have a copy of the certifications or documentation from that time in my work history?
Todd: An important part of prior learning assessment is determining if what you say is, in fact, true. You may have to do a little bit of hunting. You have to find out who can verify the information you are talking about. Can you identify a former co-worker or supervisor who might be able to write that letter of support? Can you find any place at all where this training or learning was recognized and provide that evidence? If you don’t have the credential, can the organization that issued it provide a letter that says we issued this credential to you on such and such date? So you must be able to prove it; you can’t just assert that you have the knowledge. That’s the equivalent of me taking a photo standing in front of the Mona Lisa and saying that I painted it. You must be able to demonstrate that what you are saying is true. And as long as you can clearly do that, we will award the credit. If you are ever unsure about how to go about obtaining supporting documentation, email us at email@example.com, and we can tell you a little bit about what students do when they just don’t have the proof. I’m happy to provide all sorts of anecdotal assistance about the options you might have that you may not be thinking about right now.
Question 17. Are there registration periods for exams and how do they work?
Todd: TECEP® exams are the University’s own credit-by-exam program, and those are set up by terms. When you register to take a TECEP®, you register to take a two-hour exam (some are a bit longer) within a 12-week window. So if I wanted to take the Public Relations Thought and Practice TECEP® Exam, say I decide to register for the April term. If I registered to take that exam during the April term, I can take the test any time I want during that 12-week term. It can be that first week. It can be the third week. Or I could wait until the very last week of the term, too.
TECEP exams are usually taken online through our online proctoring service, ProctorU, whenever you want, day or night, 24/7. In some cases, students can still take TECEP® exams in the pencil-and-paper format. When you log in through your laptop, a proctor is watching you as you take the exam. After two hours are up, that’s the equivalent of “pencils down.” Then, your exam is submitted and, if you passed it, either by one point or 30 points, you earned the credit. That’s how TECEPs work.
Exams like CLEP or DSST are different. Some are pen and paper, and you need to go to a testing center. Or, you need to take it on a computer at their testing center. You basically purchase the exam from that organization and you take it on the date and time that you determine. For example, say you want to take the CLEP exam for Analyzing and Interpreting Literature and you live in Mercer County, N.J. You might choose to take it at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), which has a testing center. You could contact MCCC and set up a date and time to take the test. Then, you contact CLEP to purchase the exam and deliver it to MCCC prior to your testing date. On your testing day, you go to the testing center, pay the testing center a small proctoring fee required by CLEP, sit down and take the exam. Two hours or so later, you’re done. Your exam paperwork is mailed back to CLEP, and your exam is scored. On the answer sheet, there is a place to identify where you want the exam results sent, so CLEP will send the score report to that school and, if you pass the exam, that institution will award you that credit.
Written by Thomas Edison State University