What are your thoughts after reading the article ?Prior Learning Assessment in Adult Education?? Of the 10 CAEL standards discussed in the article, whichtwo?do you think are the most significant in terms of educating adults today???Why? For each standard you chose, justify your position.
Prior Learning Assessment in Adult Education
(This is an adaptation of an unpublished article that was written by Elizabeth Tice, Ph.D. in
While formal educational systems have been around since before the 7th century, the
proliferation of adults entering formal educational systems is relatively recent. Adults
represent an increasing segment of today?s educational market. The number of college
students over 25 is close to 50%.
At the mid point of the 20th century, virtually all institutions of higher education
were operating under the pedagogical model of education. Pedagogy means literally ?the art
and science of teaching children.? It developed between the 7th and 12th centuries in the
monastic schools of Europe. When secular schools began to evolve in the 19th century, they
adopted the pedagogical model, which was the only one available.
The basic assumptions of the pedagogical model are that the teacher is fully
responsible to impart knowledge, primarily through lecture, while the student?s role is to be
a passive receiver of knowledge. As long as the learners were primarily children and youth,
this model remained unchallenged. Since most primary and secondary systems were based
upon the same assumptions, traditional students anticipated this educational experience as
they entered institutions of higher education.
Adults, however, were uncomfortable with the system and with the assumption that
they were ?blank slates.? They were not. Research consistently demonstrates that adults
want to be partners in their own learning process, and will shoulder a lot of the responsibility
for their own learning when given the opportunity (Heimstra & Brockett, 1994). The
distinguishing characteristics that make adults different from children have created problems
for traditional educators who have relied upon ?blank slate? pedagogical practices (Brickell,
1995). Malcolm Knowles (1980; 1990), whose research produced an alternative educational
paradigm known as the andragogical model, has demonstrated that adult students are more
self-directed than youthful students and that their learning is more meaningful and profound
when their pre-existing competencies are acknowledged within the learning process
Fortunately, many innovative individuals and educational institutions saw the
problems as opportunities, and a new industry emerged. Many new processes and
paradigms emerged with this new industry, one of which is the Prior Learning Assessment
(PLA) movement. This paper will overview the evolution of the PLA movement.
Historical Evolution of PLA
To those who were willing to see, it very quickly became clear that the adult student
was not a blank slate. Adults often bring significant knowledge and skills with them to the
classroom, knowledge and skills that were not learned at ?the feet of the master.? Life is also
a great teacher. International experience from military involvement leads to conceptual
understanding of intercultural communication. Working in a business environment for years
often leads an individual to significant understanding of business administration. Yet, the
traditional mind set would tell the successful, self-taught computer programmer whose
product is being marketed worldwide that he needs to sit in a lecture hall and listen to a
professor who has studied (but probably never worked in) computer programming. Or the
small business owner who has developed a successful retail business that his ?on-the-job?
learning of retailing principles is inferior to that of an 18 year old student who has listened to
lectures and taken a test. This does not make sense (Tice, 1997).
So, beginning as early as the 1940s and gaining impetus in the 60s and 70s, a few far
sighted educators started toying with the idea of evaluating the experiential life learning that
adult students bring with them for its equivalency and applicability to college credit. At the
time (and still today to some), this was a radical idea. Could one possibly learn anything of
value that a tenured faculty member did not teach him or her? Ironically, history books are
filled with ?self-taught? individuals whose knowledge and abilities in their particular field
far surpass their college educated peers. Yet, the time honored, traditional mind set that
dominated education since the 7th Century has often found it difficult to accept this learning
The first documented PLA program in the United States actually began at Antioch
College in 1942. It was not a fully developed portfolio program, but rather a set of entry
examinations. Student earning As and Bs on these exams were immediately awarded up to
20 semester credits towards degree completion. In 1954, Brooklyn College introduced a
Special Baccalaureate Degree program for Adults incorporating PLA, and a number of other
schools began limited PLA programs in the 60s (Keeton, undated).
One of the major thrusts in the PLA movement came in 1974 with the incorporation
of The Cooperative Assessment of Experiential Learning (CAEL). CAEL began as a project
of the Commission on Non-Traditional Study. This study was co-sponsored (beginning in
1971) by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board. ETS had developed the
College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and wanted more information on other forms
on non-collegiate sponsored learning. During the next three years, the Commission
conducted research into the field of adult and continuing education. Among other things,
they surveyed adult learners about their interest in continuing education, and they surveyed
educational institutions about their interest in offering continuing education opportunities to
adults. In 1973 they published a report with fifty-seven recommendations for projects and
practices to promote adult learning opportunities. Recommendation 47 stated that ?new
devices and techniques should be perfected to measure the outcomes of many types of nontraditional study? and Recommendation 48 stated that ?systems of quality control should be
built into the instruction and evaluation of non-traditional study? (Gamson, 1989, pp. 2324). These two recommendations laid the foundation for what would become CAEL.
Warren Willingham, of Educational Testing Service, was called upon to chair a committee
charged with developing a proposal for a project to address these recommendations. Morris
Keeton, then of Antioch College, James Hall of Empire State College, David Sweet of
Minnesota Metropolitan College, and James Brown of Thomas Edison College were also on
the committee and later played key roles in CAEL?s evolution (U. Whitaker, personal
communication, November 5, 1997). In February 1974, a sixteen month project was
approved for $821,000 funding by the Carnegie Foundation, and CAEL was officially born.
Grants procured by Willingham and Keeton kept CAEL alive after the Carnegie Foundation
project ended (Gamson, 1989).
In 1977, CAEL changed its name to The Council for the Advancement of
Experiential Learning and published Principles of Good Practice in Assessing Experiential
Learning (Willingham, 1977). This publication was an attempt to begin the development of
national standards for PLA practitioners. While CAEL itself is not a college and has never
awarded PLA credit, it was the first organized lobby for PLA and has shouldered the cause,
lobbying state and federal legislatures as well as regional accrediting commissions, training
practitioners, and publishing extensively on the subject of PLA. Its leadership in quality
PLA programing was confirmed when, in 1979, the American Council on Education?s
Council on Post Secondary Accreditation (ACE COPA) and the American Association of
Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) began to formally endorse PLA
programs if they were conducted according to CAEL?s principles of good practice (as
outlined in Willingham?s book) (Keeton, undated).
CAEL?s primary contributions to the PLA movement since 1984 include the
establishment of the National Institute on Assessing Experiential Learning, an annual PLA
training conference offered in conjunction with Thomas Edison College, continued
publication of PLA literature, continued lobbying, and an annual international conference
with a strong emphasis on PLA (Keeton, undated). It now claims more than 1400
institutional members, most of whom have PLA programs that espouse CAEL?s standards.
CAEL ACADEMIC STANDARDS
Credit shall be awarded only for the learning, not for the experience.
Probably the biggest problem in PLA programs is the difficulty of distinguishing
between experience and learning. Whitaker (1989) say that ?this standards is, at once, the
most important and the most frequently violated rule in the quality assessment field? (p.10).
Not everyone who has had a given experience will learn something significant from that; we
all know people who continue to make the same mistakes because they fail to learn from
It is the responsibility of the student to document, demonstrate, and articulate the
learning that has been gained from the experience. This is often easier said than done. Many
schools began their programs with requirements that students submit only documentation of
experience. This, however, required the faculty evaluator to infer the knowledge from the
experience. To address this discrepancy, many schools require that the student write an
experiential essay which not only describes the experience, but also articulates the
associated learning. This also proves difficult for students because they did not learn what
they know in an organized, academic format. For many, the line between the experience and
the knowledge is blurred. The work of another important researcher in the field of learning
has been instrumental in addressing this issue. David Kolb?s work on experiential learning
produced a model that has been incorporated into a majority of institutional programs
This conceptual model explains the learning process as a cycle moving from the
concrete experience, to observation and reflection, to abstract conceptualization and
generalization, and back to the experiential realm with active experimentation. As a person
gains more experience in an area, he or she starts to recognize patterns and relationships
which lead to more complex abstract conceptualization, which in turn allows for more
precise experimentation (Stice, 1987). This allows students to extract the what I know part
from the what I did.
College credit shall be awarded only for college-level learning.
For adults with minimal experience in formal higher education, it is often difficult to
distinguish between learning that is personally meaningful and learning that is college
equivalent. I have argued this issue with hundreds of students over the years. If the learning
was meaningful to them, they believe it should be awarded credit. I often use the
comparison of taking a college course in psychology and going to personal counseling to
illustrate this point to students. While the counseling experience was meaningful and
probably led to some knowledge, its focus is not the same as a course. The learning is
personal, not generalized or conceptual.
Sharon (1997) indicates that in order to be college level learning, there should be
some counterpart in formal educational systems.
Credit should be awarded only for learning that has a balance, appropriate to
the subject, between theory and practical application.
Many fields have specific academic vocabulary that the experiential learner would
not necessarily gain. If a PLA student seeking credit for Child Development can describe
phenomonologically developmental processes such as object permanence and conservation
but is not familiar with the Piagetian terms, does she have college level learning? There are
two schools of thought regarding this issue. Some say no, that the vocabulary is part of the
college course. Others say yes, that the vocabulary is secondary to the conceptual
The determination of competence levels and of credit awards must be made by
appropriate subject matter and academic experts.
It is widely accepted that faculty members with expertise in the field are the only
appropriate evaluators of academic credit.
Credit should be appropriate to the academic context in which it is
With this standard, Whitaker (1989) argues that PLA credit should not be limited to
the fringes of a student?s credit. ?College creditable learning occurs in the major, in general
education, and in electives? (p.16). He argues that to limit credit only to certain areas is to
apply a double standard. .
CAEL ADMINISTRATIVE STANDARDS
Credit awards and their transcript entries should be monitored to avoid
giving credit for the same learning twice.
Duplication of credit is a larger issue that just its application to PLA. It is every
institutions responsibility to monitor its credit awards to avoid awarding duplicate credit.
Policies and procedures applied to assessment, including provision for
appeal, should be fully disclosed and prominently available.
VIII. Fees charged should be based on the services performed in the process
and not determined by the amount of credit awarded.
All personnel involved in the assessment of learning should receive adequate
training for the functions they perform, and there should be provision for their
continued professional development.
Assessment programs should be regularly monitored, reviewed, evaluated, and
revised as needed to reflect changes in the needs being served and in the state of
assessment arts (Whitaker, 1989).
What all this means to the adult student is a significant savings in time and money.
Practices vary by institution, but students attending institutions with PLA programs who can
provide documentation of college level learning equivalent to the courses that they are
required to take can receive the college credit without the redundancy of sitting through the
Although PLA has assimilated into the mainstream of adult education, it is not
without its detractors. Many educators argue that the learning (and therefore the credit) is
inferior. They believe that on-the-job learning is too practical and not theoretical enough.
Horton (1996) and Ashworth (1996) criticize the widely accepted practice. Ashworth states
that most adults do not ?in the course of their jobs perform tasks of such breadth or
intellectual substance that the work should be deemed adequate to constitute a university
credential or credit toward such a credential?(p. A88). Horton argues that education is not
about credentialing, but about expanding students? minds. Personally, I would argue that it
is both. These recent criticisms echo the early critic who called PLA ?credit for life
experience? (Sam, 1979) and ?credit for living? (Under Attack, 1979). Critics typically use
the example of a mother receiving credit Social Science credit for Psychology Parenting
because it tends to amplify the theory verses practice argument. However, research
indicates that in the U.S., most PLA credit is awarded in business and management, a less
vague area (Sheckley, 1988).
Ashworth, K. (1996, September 6). Virtual universities could provide only virtual learning.
The Chronicle of Higher Education A88.
Brickell, H.M. (1995). Adults in the classroom. New York: College Board Publications.
Carlson, R. (1989). Malcolm Knowles: Apostle of andragogy. [On-line], xx. Available:
College campuses getting grayer. (1996, October 17). The Arizona Republic, p. A12.
Gamsom, Z. (1989). Higher education and the real world: The story of CAEL. Wolfboro
NH: Longwood Academic Publishing.
Hiemstra, R. & Brockett R. (Ed.) (1994). Overcoming resistance to self direction in adult
learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hopkins, R. (1993). David Kolb?s experiential learning machine. Journal of
Phenomenological Psychology, 24(1), 46-62.
Horton, S. (1996, Summer). Pitching real world learning. Ocotillo: The Journal of Adult
Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education. New York: Cambridge
Knowles, M.S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species (4th ed.). Houston: Gulf
Lamdin, L. (1997). Earn college credit for what you know. Chicago:CAEL.
Marienau, C. & Fiddler, M. (1996, Summer). Diminishing distinctions. Ocotillo: The
Journal of Adult Learning, 1.
Sam, N.H. (1979, February). Life experience--An academic con game? Change, pp. 7, 62.
Sharon, A. (1977). Assessing occupational competencies: A CAEL handbook.
Sheckley, B. (1989). Institutional policies and practices for assessing prior learning:
Results of a national survey. CAEL Forum and News, 11 (5), 8. Chicago: CAEL.
Stice, J.E. (1987). Using Kolb?s learning cycle to improve student learning. Engineering
Education, February, 291-296.
Tice, E. (1997) Educating adults: A matter of balance. Adult Learning, Sep/Oct 1997.
Under attack: College credits for living. (1979, April). U.S. News and World Report,
Whitaker, U. (1989). Assessing learning: Standards, principles, and procedures.
Willingham, W. (1997). Principles of good practice in assessing experiential learning.
Keeton, M. (Undated). High points in the history of assessment of experiential learning.
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