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Pedagogy and Advanced Placement Through Assessment

by Peter Smith

Many institutions can significantly increase their capacity to educate more learners, without increasing costs, by effectively granting them “advanced placement” towards the degree they are seeking. And research indicates that, for the learners that go through a portfolio development course that assesses their formal and experiential prior learning, the process is in fact a significant pedagogy and learning experience in its own right. Yet our current practices do the opposite, slowing students down, making them spend more time and money, and ignoring the educational value of a reflective assessment process.

But there are additional, significant educational advantages as well. Learners who complete this process display more positive characteristics than their peers as students going forward. They perform better academically, persisting and graduating at rates over 70 percent. Their aspiration and motivation levels are reinforced by the practice of reflecting on the learning they have done, considering its value for equivalent academic credit, assembling it in a portfolio, and applying it as one part of academic and degree planning going forward. In fact, a recently released CAEL study confirmed these more localized findings using over 50,000 learners over 20 years. Of the institutions included in CAEL’s study, overall graduation rates were higher for students who engaged in prior-learning-assessment offerings. Fifty-six percent of students who participated in prior learning activities graduated with a college degree in less than seven years, compared to 21 percent of students who did not pursue prior learning activities. The findings also confirm that time to degree for students with prior learning is less than those without prior learning, as students with prior learning save between 2.5 and 10.1 months in pursuit of their degrees.

Although some would argue that it is not easy to do this kind of advanced placement based on assessment of prior learning, using course equivalents and a portfolio approach, scaled through technology make it entirely possible. The hard fact is that many faculty members do not want to let this kind of learning “in” to the degree stream. Why? Because they fear that it is not rigorous enough. Most faculty members assume that acceptable learning only occurs in their classroom, under their supervision, and through archaic means—like the lecture hall.

But just because learning hasn’t been supervised doesn’t mean it wasn’t acquired. We’ve come too far in our research and pedagogy to believe that any more. College-level learning can occur in any arena, and it’s time that we educators recognize it to assist students with degree attainment. Students in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) programs are held to the same high standards as any traditional student. They still have to prove—one way or another—that they meet the same course outcomes that other students have to meet to pass that course. If you focus on the assessment of learning and hold students to the same standards, the quality of learning will speak for itself.

Peter Smith is senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education and has served in several key administrative, academic and policy positions in education throughout his career.  To read more of his thoughts on the future of higher education, visit his blog at http://peterpsmith.blogspot.com.