Prior Learning Assessment Strategies at the Course Level

by Kristina Wilson

Defining Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is an approach to Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) that allows institutions of higher learning to “evaluate and formally recognize learning that has occurred outside of the traditional academic environment. It is used to grant college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training.” 

PLA strategies vary between different universities and colleges, but may include awarding credit for military and professional experiences, Course Match PLA Projects, exams such as College-Level Examination Program® (CLEP) exams, professional licensures or certifications, and open-source learning opportunities such as MOOCs (massively open online courses). 

The value of PLA to students is clear. In 2020, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) published new research on the many benefits of PLA. In short, students who participated in PLA were more likely to complete their credential (“Credential completion was 22 percentage points higher for adult students with PLA than adult students without PLA”) and students saved time (“9 to 14 months”) and money (“$1,500 to $10,200”) by participating in PLA. 

In addition to these direct benefits, PLA also affords students psychological benefits such as validation and motivation, as well as improved self-awareness and self-esteem for adult students. For example, CAEL cited Klein-Collins & Olson’s 2014 findings that “Students who earned CPL/PLA credit discussed how the act of reflecting on past learning was a positive experience for them and often improved their self-image.”  

However, not every college or university offers credit for prior learning. 

Aside from advocating for PLA at the course or university level, what can instructors do to value students’ prior experiences? 

Are you making time to get to know your students and their backgrounds? If you do not have an introduction activity or are thinking about revamping yours, it can be a great opportunity to ask students to recall prior learning experiences. This can help students identify strengths through reflection, connect with peers who have both similar and dissimilar backgrounds, and set the tone that students bring as much knowledge to the classroom as the instructor. Everyone is a subject-matter expert in something! 

Don’t forget to use the information you learn in the introductions to inform your decision-making throughout the course. In the discussions, you may have the opportunity to identify students to “call” into the discussion to share their experiences or opinions. You could also decide to structure student groups so that students have a mix of prior experiences, and refer to student experiences in check-in meetings, office hours, or written feedback. 


This entire blog post could be about reflection! Incorporating reflection on prior experiences into your course in a meaningful and intentional way can help both value and challenge those experiences. Students in your course may have the opportunity to confront strongly held beliefs as well as validate the experiences and beliefs of others. 

Some instructors are hesitant to create assignments that connect to personal experience, thinking that students with less experience may feel like they do not have a fair chance to complete the assignment or that they are constantly acknowledging a gap or lack of knowledge. Likewise, they are hesitant to craft assignments asking for opinions, feeling that coursework shouldn’t exclusively ask students to share feelings and opinions without going more in-depth.  

My suggestions in reaction to these thoughts are to: 

  • Develop assignments that partner analysis and synthesis of course materials with reflection on prior knowledge and personal experience. 
  • Provide clear directions for students without prior experience in your topic area, suggesting specific ways they can meet the needs of the assignment. 
  • Prioritize individual goal setting and reflecting on progress toward those goals as a way to help students with varying levels of experience work towards personal and meaningful goals. 

Challenge Levels

Students come into your class with a large variety of past experiences and skills. For some students, your class may prove very challenging. Others may feel they are learning at a steady pace. Still others may not feel that they are learning anything new or that they are not being challenged.  

Using a challenge levels approach, you might provide some optional choices for students who want to push the envelope.  

A few suggestions: 

  • Ensure that challenge activities are clearly labeled “optional.” 
  • Early in the course, confirm that they truly are optional; students who complete them will get the satisfaction of the challenge and the opportunity to rely on their prior experiences but will not earn extra credit or garner favor in the eyes of the instructor. 
  • Use Universal Design for Learning strategies to provide activity and assignment options, so that students can choose the appropriate challenge level for their level of knowledge and experience as well as the amount of time and energy available to complete it at the moment. 

Check-What-You-Know Activities

As you begin your course, you could help students self-assess their prior knowledge in the course topic as a metacognitive activity. For example, a brief quiz on course prerequisite topics or skills could help students determine if they need to: 

  • Refamiliarize or refresh themselves course topics prior to beginning the first activities. 
  • Take on a mentor role with other students in the course who may not be as familiar with the topic. 
  • Seek additional guidance during the term, such as utilizing The Writing Place or The Math Place. 
  • Take the course in another term, in combination with other courses or at a time when they have fewer work or family commitments. 

Authentic Assessment

Finally, if you have the opportunity to create authentic assessments for your course, do! What do authentic assessments look like? In contrast to course assignments that exist in academic but are not widely practiced in professional contexts, such as papers and discussion posts, authentic assessments mimic real-world workplace genres and situations.  

A few examples of authentic assessments in SPS courses include: 

  • In a leadership class, a case study that asks students to make decisions from the perspective of a leader. 
  • In an information systems course, a final project where a student must develop a new application as well as a pitch deck to promote the new app. 
  • In a communications course, a marketing plan for an organization, real or imagined. 
  • In a public policy course, a press release announcing a policy change, real or imagined. 

Authentic assessments may be a particularly useful opportunity for students with experience in similar scenarios or with similar genres of writing to collaborate with less experienced peers to reflect on and share their knowledge.  


CAEL. (2022). A Brighter Future Through Credit for Prior Learning.  

CAEL. (2020, Nov. 1). New Research from CAEL and WICHE on Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes.  

CAST. (2018). The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines  

Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Authentic Assessment. Indiana University Bloomington.  

Klein-Collins, Rebecca; Olson, Rick. (2014). Customized, Outcome-Based, Relevant Evaluation (CORE) at Lipscomb University: A Competency-Based Education Case Study. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.