Worth a Second Look – Prior Learning Assessment And Recognition, A Lifetime Of Learning.

[Published April 23, 2003 v11 i17]

Worth a Second Look – Prior Learning Assessment And Recognition, A Lifetime Of Learning.

Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition recognizes the experience and skills of mature students who bring a diversity of learning experiences to their university education. In some cases, prior learning and job skills may be granted university credits, and for a skilled person, a university degree may only be a few courses away. On April 23, 2003 [v11 i17], Teresa Neuman completed a PLAR assessment, and wrote about her experience. Also see the end of this article for an update from Teresa…

Life experiences provide many learning opportunities, and the skills from this learning are applicable to work or education. Workers are returning to school to gain standing for professional advancement. Athabasca University students can access the Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) process to receive credit towards Athabasca University degrees and diplomas, reducing the time it takes to earn their degree. This optional process provides students the opportunity to identify past learning and present it for recognition towards formal education. In the adult education field, this process is considered to be an idea whose time has come (Young qtd. in Sansregret, 9).

When I enrolled at Athabasca University in the Bachelor of Professional Arts (Communications Studies) Undergraduate Degree program, my academic advisor suggested that once I had completed the challenge for credit process and had my previous diploma evaluated, I could submit a PLAR portfolio towards 30 further program credits. If I chose to use the PLAR assessment process, I could obtain my degree in as little as 10 courses. It seemed unbelievable, until I started investigating the theory and processes behind PLAR.

PLAR is a method of evaluating prior learning. Susan Kemper observes that learning can occur in the classroom, on the job, and through personal experiences and activities (Kemper qtd. in Sansregret, 7). In the book, Prior Learning Assessment: The Portfolio, adult educator Marthe Sansregret presents a clearer definition of the PLAR process. “Prior learning assessment is defined as the process by which an individual identifies learning acquired at different times in his life in various places and by different methods in order to eventually receive official accreditation by a reputable learning institution” (Sansregret, 13). Usually, PLAR refers to learning outside of the academic institution, but it can include prior post-secondary learning that has not been evaluated for credit for any other diploma or official accreditation. PLAR is not awarded based on years of work, taking workshops, or for writing and publishing. It is a method of assessing how life experiences link to the courses in a person’s chosen area of study. Sansregret observes that PLAR can apply to anyone, of any age, or social, religious, and economic background who wishes to review their life experiences to plan their future and possible receive academic credits (5).

Athabasca University recommends assembling a PLAR once some learning outcomes of the student’s program are achieved. Having successfully completed some classes in my program and having challenged as many classes for credit as I could, I knew that I had reached the point where it was time to assemble my PLAR portfolio.

Students considering PLAR should read Athabasca University’s web site where a comprehensive FAQ and overview of PLAR are provided. Athabasca University recommends that students purchase a copy of Sansregret’s book Prior Learning Assessment: The Portfolio, prior to starting the PLAR process. It is not a requirement that this book be purchased; a portfolio could just as easily be assembled without it. Further, students can access a portfolio development class, Psychology 205 – Prior Learning Assessment and Portfolio Development. I opted not to take the class, but I did purchase the book. It was helpful in assembling the PLAR portfolio and I probably would have missed some details had I proceeded without it.

The initial steps of the PLAR process caused me to reflect on my life’s work, what I had learned, who I was, and how my attitudes from these experiences became defined. I had to determine how my life’s experiences were applicable to my course of study. I ripped apart boxes to find pay stubs, transcripts, and proof of sports and leisure activities spanning over twenty years. I had to determine how these materials applied to who I am now. As a starting point, I created a detailed biography of my life and defined my educational goals. I then assembled my portfolio and wrote the essay for assessment required by my program. This process took three months to complete. The PLAR process might take less time for other students; it is worth taking time to complete the portfolio to your own level of satisfaction.

Outside of the academic environment, employers and unions are starting to examine PLAR. In Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Labour Force Development Board (SLFDB) views PLAR as a method of providing employers a means to maximize the potential of current and future employees. (SLFDB website) The Board, which is an advocate of building a learning culture in Saskatchewan, (SLFDB website) believes that the benefits of PLAR can apply to both small and large business. As part of its mandate, the Board provides leadership in areas of training and socio-economic development in the areas of Career Education, Promotion of Training Partnerships for Aboriginal People, Workplace Literacy, and Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition. The Board includes increased profitability, higher employee satisfaction, and efficient employee training as potential benefits from the PLAR process. With time and money in short supply for employers, the PLAR process could help employers respond to current and future skill shortages and access the non-traditional labour pool (SLFDB website).
PLAR is still under study in Saskatchewan, but the benefits of PLAR in the workplace are becoming clear. Resources and financial support must be available in Saskatchewan before PLAR can be fully implemented. More information on PLAR and the final report for pilot projects in Saskatchewan are available at the Saskatchewan Labour Force Development Board web site at http://www.sfldb.com.

Assembling the PLAR portfolio has been an interesting exercise and I await the comments of the evaluators. I condensed a lifetime of learning into a binder for evaluation for credit. The PLAR process identified the skills that I bring to my work and studies and showed that I continue to learn both in and out of the classroom. To me, that is what education is about.

UPDATE: The PLAR Assessment Committee awarded 7 out of a possible 10 credits towards my degree. The committee recommended classes that filled gaps in my course plan and suggested that I join a professional association like the International Association of Business Communicators. I have incorporated these suggestions into my studies. When I started my PLAR project, I wasn’t sure what outcome to expect. I gained credit towards my degree, but more importantly, I learned that my past experience provides skills that are transferable to any work environment.

Teresa Neuman

Prior Learning Assessment: The Portfolio. Marthe Sansregret. Hurtubise HMH Ltd. (Montreal): 1993. ISBN 2-89045-972-1

Teresa is enrolled in the Bachelor of Professional Arts Program, Communications Studies, at Athabasca University and is enjoying returning to school after 18 years. Teresa enjoys writing, union activism and gardening, and lives and works in Regina, Saskatchewan, with her partner Kevin and son Adam.