PLAR – Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition

Life Meets Learning

As kids, it always seemed easy to answer that intriguing question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Eyes shining we reached for the stars, never doubting our career choice of fireman, ballerina, or superhero.

As adults, though, the path to finding (and following) our dreams can prove a lot more complicated, with a few courses here, a couple of career changes there. The question then is, what to do with that diverse wealth of experience once we choose a direction?

AU’s Centre for Learning Accreditation may have the answer, and It’s called PLAR?Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition.

Dr. Dianne Conrad is the Director of AU’s Centre for Learning Accreditation (CLA), where staff work with students to help them organize their experiential learning and translate it into university-level credits.

AU’s PLAR department operates within the CLA and, as Dianne explains, the university ?introduced a PLAR process way back in 1997. Since then, the process has grown considerably, as has the size of our office. The Centre for Learning Accreditation currently has four positions: a Director, a student support specialist/receptionist, and two mentors. One of the mentoring positions also coordinates the assessment procedure.?

Through PLAR, students learn to present their diverse experiences as a cohesive set of accomplishments, reviewing the knowledge they’ve gained through formal studies, informal studies, work and volunteer activities?even leisure and travel experiences.

Fran Holler, a mentorship coordinator, explains the PLAR process this way: ?We work one-on-one with students helping them articulate their experiential learning that they’ve gained through life, through careers, volunteer [work], family, all those kinds of activities that have provided them learning opportunities that they can translate into university-level credits.?

Students then build a portfolio ?that meets the specific pre-set criteria,? Fran adds, ?and It’s forwarded to assessors and . . . they measure that learning in relation to the program, and award credit for that.?

Although every undergraduate degree and university certificate has PLAR credit opportunities, Dianne notes that PLAR offers many other important benefits.

?Receiving a bundle of credit as a result of portfolio assessment is PLAR’s tangible outcome,? she says. ?On our website, we feature ?Ten Top Reasons for Doing PLAR.? And they include validating your past experiential learning in a meaningful way, developing/practicing organizational skills, developing the ability to meaningfully reflect on past learning, improving your writing skills, receiving detailed feedback on your learning, learning to think critically about your own learning, compiling a comprehensive document that reflects your past accomplishments, and growing your sense of self-esteem and professional competence through the PLAR process.

?Of course,? she adds, ?you can also save a lot of money, and many programs accept up to 30 PLAR credits.?

With over 100 assessors who work independently of each other to assess portfolios, and integration throughout many departments in the university, AU’s CLA is a leader in the field.

?AU’s system is very progressive, rigorous, and unique,? says Dianne. ?Doing PLAR at AU places the emphasis on your learning and what you know. It is not an ?audit? or a checklist approach. Our assessment protocol is also very thorough. Most PLAR portfolios are reviewed by a team of at least three content specialists, each working independently so as to ensure a fair assessment.?

If the idea of a PLAR portfolio sounds intriguing, there are a few things to keep in mind.

In Canada, PLAR is ?generally regarded as an undergraduate activity,? Dianne explains. ?Many graduate programs allow their students to waive some courses, given the student’s particular strengths or background, but there are very few formalized PLAR opportunities in graduate programs.? (Graduate students can contact the graduate program office for more information.)

To make sure that students gain the most from the PLAR process, Fran Holler notes that a good place to start is ?to research the program that fits their future educational [and] career goals and talk to a counsellor for that, talk to an advisor, so that they can get a picture of how their previous education, their experiential learning, and their future interests all can combine to build a path for them.?

There are plenty of new developments on the PLAR horizon, too.

?PLAR has been experiencing tremendous growth at AU in the last few years,? Dianne says. ?The biggest news has been the introduction of dedicated mentors who will work with you from start to finish, or at the level that you need in order to help you through the process.?

Another innovation has been the creation of a ?learning contract to help learners structure their PLAR activities,? Dianne notes. ?And we are working on adopting an e-portfolio platform to allow learners who prefer working electronically to do that. We process a lot of paper, so it would be useful to bring an e-portfolio opportunity onboard.?

For Dianne, one of the most exciting initiatives is the research project for which she has received two years of federal SSHRC funding. ?The study proposes to look at knowledge-building opportunities in the PLAR process in a couple of different systems practiced around the world,? she explains. ?PLAR’s knowledge-building potential is of real interest to me, as a university practitioner.?

And when it comes to the rewards of PLAR, staff and students alike share in the success.

?As the Director of CLA, and speaking as a long-time adult educator, I am most rewarded by learners? successes,? Dianne says. ?The PLAR process permits us to work closely with our learners, and we get to know their stories, which are often stories of incredible struggle.

?Rightly or wrongly, we live in an increasingly credentialized world, and that is not going to change. Learners who are well accomplished in their careers or their fields?who have climbed the ladder without the benefit of a university degree?come to us needing to complete a degree in short order in order either to advance in their careers or sometimes just to keep the job they have already earned! Both AU’s policy of open admission and the PLAR process offer these learners a tremendous boost to their professional lives. Their stories inspire us.?

To find out more about AU’s PLAR program, visit the Centre for Learning Accreditation website today.