Dr. Bob Habib serves as an Instructional Systems Specialist for the Department of Homeland Security where he develops training policy for the US Coast Guard, as well as a professor for the School of Business & Leadership at Regent University. Prior to coming to Regent and the USCG, he served as a teacher for Virginia Beach Public Schools and was an instructional designer for mid and senior-level leadership courses for the DoD and DHS. Most recently, he has helped spearhead an international initiative driven by Edify Online to partner with MIT-World Peace University where he designs, develops, and facilitates Design Entrepreneurship and Strategic Business courses for students in Pune, India. As a military veteran, he has spent many years developing strategic partnerships with educational institutions and veteran service organizations nationwide to promote the professional, academic, and personal success of veterans and their families. Dr. Bob also serves as a consultant for innovation initiatives and change management for many national organizations and has spearheaded numerous initiatives from inception to implementation. Some of these initiatives have led to millions of dollars in net revenue gain and have gained national recognition within the higher education industry.
Years ago, when I was attending community college as a music major, I took a piano proficiency course requiring many hours of lab time. After the first few labs, it became apparent to me that I could already do (perform) all of the required elements of the course. Having come to this realization, I went to the professor and asked if I could ‘test out’ of the course – which was quickly answered with a resounding “NO!” I was told that under no circumstances would there be a test-out option because although I may be able to demonstrate some level of proficiency, I didn’t learn it ‘their way.’ As I sat there the next day in the lab doing my best to stay focused on the lesson, I found myself straying from the objectives and literally began improvising my way through the hour. I distinctly remember the professor stopping by my keyboard station and listening in to my impromptu performance. Fully expecting they would be impressed and offer a look of approval with my demonstrated ability; I was shocked to observe them turn my keyboard off and tell me “You need to stay on task – you don’t know what you are doing.”
I had two options at this point, stay enrolled in the class and in essence hack my way through an easy ‘A’ or appeal the decision. As a 19-year-old, I decided this was the hill I was going to die on. I scheduled a meeting with the dean to discuss the situation, and after I told them what was going on, she simply asked me, “Can you play the piano?” I said, “Yes, that’s why I’m here.” She opened a method book and placed it on the piano in her office. She told me, “If you can play page 38 with minimal errors right now, I’ll waive the course for you.” With little hesitation, I went to the piano and played the excerpt as requested. By the end of the day, my transcript showed I received full credit for the course, and I now had my Tuesday mornings free. The dean didn’t care how I acquired those skills – rather the end result was the critical element of mastery. Could I perform the required task to standard, yes, or no? The answer was yes, and that satisfied the requirement because for me to have demonstrated proficiency, I would have had to have learned some fundamentals at some point even if they didn’t come from a traditional setting.
While not formal by any stretch, that was a pragmatic demonstration of giving credit where credit was due – and that was over 30 years ago. If reasonable educators and trainers have been putting Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) into practice for decades, why is it that so many institutions shy away from this practice? Likely barriers include consistency, complexity of integration, lack of objective measures, potential loss of revenue, and lack of awareness regarding the benefits PLA provides. Furthermore, some legacy-minded institutions make the argument that students must learn ‘their way of doing things’ regardless of the end result – in essence, the process is more important than the result. In general, I disagree. We should be helping our students refine their abilities of ‘how to think’ rather than focusing on ‘what to think.’ If you subscribe to this, then logic dictates we should apply that principle to assessments and evaluations.
What is PLA?
According to the Council for Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL), PLA is a term for various methods that colleges, universities, and other education/training providers use to evaluate and formally recognize learning that has occurred outside of the traditional academic environment. It is often used to grant college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training. Prior Learning Assessments can offer objective pathways for learners to demonstrate levels of mastery within a given discipline or content area. Outside of the traditional academic environment includes:
- Occupational experience and training in the workforce or military
- Independent study
- Non-credit courses (Edx and Coursera, etc.)
- Volunteer or community service
- Non-college courses or seminars (professional conferences, LinkedIn Learning, etc.)
…and yes, even good old-fashioned street smarts.
Why implement PLA?
It’s the right thing to do. If that’s not enough, consider that CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) found that adult students who participate in PLA are 17% more likely to complete their programs, compared to those without PLA. Have your attention yet? How about the fact that adult PLA students saved, on average, 9-14 months in earning a degree (CAEL-WICHE study findings), and depending on the sector, saved between $1,500 and $10,200 through PLA. Still not there? Let’s return to the lost revenue conversation. On average, adult students with PLA take 17 more course credits from their college or university compared to those without PLA. Beyond those significant benefits, why would we ask students to sit through courses when they can already demonstrate proficiency?
Even though effective PLA programs rely on formal, objective, and measurable criteria, where/how the knowledge, skills, and behaviors were acquired is not the most critical element. Demonstration of knowledge and proficiency can be done through a myriad of mediums including:
- Performance demonstrations (the most underutilized)
- ACE college credit recommendations (or equivalent)
- CLEP and DANTES exams
- Challenge exams
There are others to consider, but alignment with the course objectives is key. Build out a reasonable assessment that evaluates a learner’s knowledge and/or ability regarding those objectives. It’s easy to stray off course by looking at where the knowledge was acquired, but stay laser-focused on the objectives and create opportunities for demonstration based on a continuum. Some models rely on a simple pass/fail system while the most effective models allow for variances in scoring. Most traditional academic settings are not pass/fail (with most Law school courses as the exception) – so don’t fall into the trap of creating the same pitfall for your assessments. Lastly, employ marketing strategies that will increase awareness for current and prospective students, and develop a revenue structure that incentivizes this for students. I don’t recommend free – as I like for students to have some skin in the game but consider this a less expensive option for students who legitimately have the knowledge and skills you want them to have. Data proves they will stick around longer, have a higher propensity to graduate, and will increase lifelong affiliation.
If you truly believe that all learning is important, regardless of where or how proficiency was obtained, let’s keep the keyboards on and allow our students to perform their way to success. It’s time to give credit where credit is due. It can be that simple.