2 keys to creating robust prior learning assessment

June 14, 2016
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Technology and Transfer
  • Transfer and Articulation
Diverse group of young adults smiling around a restaurant table.

Prior learning assessment systems took root and have thrived at many nontraditional schools, community colleges and for-profit schools. The concept has been harder to shoehorn into the traditional four-year undergraduate environment. Traditional institutions, however, cannot afford to ignore prior learning—and there are schools around the country developing innovative assessments.

Some of these institutions, such as The Ohio State University (OSU), have been able to create flexible systems that help students save money and earn degrees faster, while still fitting into the school’s existing infrastructure.

“Giving students credit or recognition in a subject area helps institutions be more competitive,” said Jack Miner, Director of Registrar Operations at OSU. “In some areas of the country, offering credit for prior learning is a market issue. Students are looking at multiple schools and want to know if they come to your institution they’ll have the same playing field as if they’d gone to a neighboring school with a robust prior learning program.”

Robust programs can make a measurable differences in time-to-degree and student debt, which helps meet student, institutional and public policy goals.

What makes a program robust?

Clear pathways and strong partnerships. The best programs help students not only receive credit, but credit toward requisites and majors. For those reasons, OSU’s program has become a model for other traditional institutions.

“In the past transfer was often a point-in-time question,” Miner said. The student did coursework at another school and transferred on a specific date. It’s becoming more common, however, to see transfer students continue to take concurrent courses to supplement their OSU coursework, such as online courses or summer courses closer to home. “All those pieces together can be supported by proactive communication about how transfer courses will fit into their academic program.”

Building a strong network with community colleges around Ohio has been key to that communication. Strong partnerships with community colleges means that advisors have clear information they can share with students.

“That way, when the student does transfer they’ll have a high confidence level that their coursework will transfer both in terms of credit and in terms of applicability to an individual program or major,” Miner said.

Credit by exam. OSU also has a strong, homegrown credit by exam program. Exams equate to native courses, allowing students to demonstrate mastery of material through testing, rather than taking a course they don’t need simply to fill a requirement. The credit from each exam is tied to a specific course number that fits into the hierarchy of courses and counts towards not only the program or general education requirements but also can fulfill requisites for other courses.

“The academic integrity and rigor of these tests is set by the departments,” Miner said. “They test for similar information as they would in the classroom, so they know that a student who passes the exam has the same competency in the subject area that students who took the native class have, and we can be confident knowing that student is prepared for the next class in the sequence.”

Be competitive in the prior learning market

Prior learning assessment has become essential to higher education institutions of all types. Find out what your school is doing well, and what it could be doing differently. Miner will lead a discussion of the background, development, and current models for prior learning assessments at July’s AACRAO Technology and Transfer Conference.

Learn more about the Conference—including a scholarship opportunity to help defray the cost of attendance and a justification letter to help secure approval. Join the conversation in Anaheim, July 10-12, 2014!

Engage in year-round discussions of transfer issues by joining the Transfer listserv here.



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