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Published: 4-01-2012, 13:16

Provision of Prior Learning Assessment


Prior learning assessment (PLA) is a topic that has emerged as a central aspect of the policy and practice of lifelong learning around the world. The topic is of interest in adult education as well as in higher education. It could be not only a matter of defining eligibility and widening of access to education, but also a matter of assessment for credit so that people do not study what they already know. Further, PLA is of interest in relation to work life, where it could facilitate mobility, competence development, and competence utilization. It is not necessarily always a formal assessment; more informal methods for recognition of and making learning visible (Bjørna°vold, 2000) could be seen as expressions of the idea of PLA.

The provision of PLA differs around the world. This article will not give a description of the provision of PLA in different countries. Rather, the aim of the article is to provide some general perspectives on PLA provision, independent of national context.

Different Terms and Acronyms

There are different terms used around the world to express the idea of giving recognition to prior learning: PLA is used in the United States; prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) in Canada; recognition of prior learning (RPL) in South Africa and Australia; accreditation of prior (experiential) learning (AP[E]L) in the UK; validation of prior learning (VPL) in the Netherlands; and la validation des acquis (recognition of experiential learning) in France, for example. These different terms will not be elaborated in detail here. Instead, the article starts from the general idea of PLAR to provide a discussion that is relevant for all readers, independent of national background.

The General Idea of PLAR

The general idea of PLAR covers a number of different aspects, of which the most central aspects will be discussed here.

PLA is about giving recognition to prior learning, irrespective of when, where, and how learning has taken place. The prior of prior learning does not prescribe a certain time gap between learning and assessment. It could be a matter of recent learning, but the time gap could also be wide – the basic condition here is the assumption that the individual has present knowledge or competence as a result of prior learning. Where the prior learning was acquired could have taken place in people’s daily life, in the work place, or in a foreign country for example, and learning could have taken place in the context of formal education – if that learning has not received relevant recognition – or more commonly in a nonformal setting, thereby giving this learning a more formal recognition.

One limitation in the irrespectivity of where prior learning took place is that the assessment within a course, of what has been learned in that particular course, is not normally defined as PLA. Rather, a second central aspect of the idea of PLA is that it is strongly related to transfer and mobility. PLA should facilitate transfer and mobility of knowledge and of individuals. What has been learned before – prior learning – is assessed to get present recognition. In addition to this transfer in time, PLA is also often a matter of transfer in space. The knowledge that is assessed is not normally developed in the same context as where it is assessed, which lies in stark contrast to more traditional educational assessments where the main object of assessment is the knowledge developed within a certain course or educational program. In PLA, informal and nonformal learning has taken place in everyday life, work life, voluntary organizations, study circles, etc., and is (often) assessed in an educational context. Another example of transfer through PLA is that prior learning could have been formally assessed and certified in one context, but if this certification is not valid in a new context a renewed assessment might be needed, like when professional immigrants come to a new country. Of course, there are exceptions from this transfer in space. Some processes of PLA are, for example, situated in a work place, assessing knowledge that has been developed before, informally, in the same workplace context.

The History of PLA

The idea of giving recognition to prior learning is not new. It has been present in different contexts for a long time, even if these practices have not been given a name.

Although its origins are commonly traced to the post-World War II USA (Weil and McGill, 1989), when returning veterans wanted their skills recognized by universities, RPL is not a totally new phenomenon [. . .] Rather, it is the formalization and (re)naming of preexisting practices concerning alternative access and admissions, mature age entry, and so on (Harris, 2006: 3).

Thus, the more explicit ideas of PLA have roots in the post-WorldWar II era in the USA, in the context of giving recognition to the experiences of the war veterans, to help them settle back into a normal life. There are also roots in France, where ‘‘[a] law passed in 1934 concerning engineering allowed people over 35 years old with no higher education qualifications, who had worked for at least five years on activities which are normally those of engineers, to gain the official title of engineer through the preparation and presentation of a dissertation based on their work experience’’ (Feutrie, 2000). In the 1970s, the interest in PLA was growing in the USA, with the idea of social justice through widening access to higher education. In the 1980s the ideas from the USA had been transferred to the UK, where PLA moved on to another area, the labor market and vocational training. Aiming at economic development through better competence utilization, methods for recognition of vocational competencies were developed. In France VAP was developed. Of course, the idea spread to other countries too, but the full history of PLA is beyond the scope of this article (for further descriptions see, e.g., Evans, 2000). However, two more emerging aims of PLA should be mentioned: (1) from South Africa, the utilization of PLA in a process of social change (in South Africa, RPL) as a possible tool to give recognition to prior learning and experiences among those with limited access to education during the apartheid era; (2) the identification of possibilities of PLA for developing self-knowledge and strengthening self-esteem (see, e.g., Cleary et al., 2002; Andersson, 2006).

Differing Aims and Approaches

As we see in the history described above, different aims of PLA are discerned: social justice, economic development, social change, and individual development. It should be pointed out that these different aims are parallel to aims promoted in relation to the provision of adult education. PLA should promote social justice, for example, in relation to the admission to higher education – like availability of adult education is a matter of social justice. PLA should also promote economic development, through the process of recognizing knowledge and competence, which results in better opportunities to make use of these in the work life. This is parallel to the provision of vocational education/training for adults. Further, the idea of PLA as a tool for social change, like in South Africa, is similar to ideas of popular adult education, related to social movements with the idea of changing society through literacy and mobilization, for example. Finally, PLA for individual development is a matter of strengthening self-esteem and self-confidence, which is an important aspect of some adult education as well.

Different approaches to PLA have been typified in different ways. One categorization is between PLA adapted to the system, as compared to PLA changing (or intending to change) the system (Andersson et al., 2003, 2004). Here, system should be understood in a generative way – it could be contributions to changes of the social system as a whole, like in South Africa, or a change of the system of education or of a single course. Among other things, this puts focus on the question of power in PLA provision. If PLA is adapted to a certain system, this means that PLA is based on an established distribution of power, where the assessment is often based on norms and criteria that are rooted in this system. For example, the assessment could be based on the pre-assumption that learning takes place in organized educational processes, rather than through informal processes, which could result in the exclusion of certain knowledge from the process or recognition. The Procrustean RPL ( Jones and Martin, 1997) is an example of this type of approach, assessing people as if they were all cast in the same mold.

According to Procrustes, a ruler in Greek mythology, everyone could fit into his bed regardless of their size and shape. If anyone was too short, he placed them on the rack and stretched them. If they were too long, he would chop of their feet. (Jones and Martin, 1997: 16).

On the other hand, there are approaches that are, more or less explicitly, aimed at changing the system. Trojan horse RPL (Harris, 1999) is a category of approaches that bring new groups into a system, and by taking their experience and knowledge seriously a change of the system from within becomes possible.

There are also other ways to categorize different approaches. For example, the difference between credit-exchange and developmental models is identified (Butterworth, 1992), and another categorization consists of the technical/market, the liberal/humanist, and the critical/radical perspectives (Breier, 2005). These differing aims and approaches have turned up in different contexts during the history of PLA.

A Broad Spectrum of PLA Methods

As mentioned, PLA in a general sense could include a broad spectrum of activities, not only formal assessments but also other types of processes to give recognition to prior learning. On the one hand, some of these activities are formal and standardized, with multiple-choice tests – like scholastic aptitude tests. On the other hand, there are PLA activities that focus on the individual and particular aspects of knowledge, to give recognition to a variety of competencies – for example, in a portfolio. This broad approach to the idea of assessment and recognition of prior learning, focusing not only the assessment per se but also recognition in a wider sense, means that the idea covers a spectrum from divergent (exploring and descriptive) assessment to convergent (controlling and examining) assessment methods (cf. Torrance and Pryor, 1998). Another definition of divergent and convergent assessments is that divergent methods focus on what the individual knows, while convergent methods focus on if the individual knows certain (predefined) things. It should be noted that this division between convergent and divergent methods is not a dichotomy. It is rather, as in other types of assessments, a matter of a continuum, where a certain method to some extent is more or less convergent and less or more divergent. However, putting forth this divergent–convergent dimension in the context of PLA highlights the problems in terms of validity that might be the result if the irrespectivity of when, where, and how is taken seriously, unless more divergent methods than in traditional educational assessment are considered. That is to say there will be problems making valid assessments with convergent methods, if the degree of validity refers to the extent to which PLA provides a fair assessment of what has been learnt in different times, contexts, and ways.

Different Methods in Practice

The ambitions of PLA could be reached in a number of ways. Different methods are used in different contexts, and some of these methods will be exemplified here, namely portfolios, interviews, standardized tests, traditional tests, and authentic tests. These methods are, of course, not only used in PLA, but they are also often used in different PLA approaches and illustrate the broad spectrum of PLA.

The portfolio represents a group of methods used in somewhat different ways. Challis (1993) has, for example, identified the difference between the outcome-related and the self-oriented portfolios. In the portfolio, the PLA candidate brings together documentation or proofs of his/her prior learning. These could be formal documents such as grades and certificates as well as less formal documents such as a testimonial from a former employer or an NGO (nongovernmental organization) where the candidate has done voluntary work. Another part of the contents of a PLA portfolio could be examples from your prior production of goods or texts. The proofs could be brought together and assessed in relation to certain convergent learning outcomes, but they could also be more divergent and self-oriented, that is, the task of the candidate in the latter case is to prove the personal competence, and it is the assessor who might relate the proofs to goals or criteria.

Interviews are used in PLA, for example, as a more divergent starting point to find out the potential of the candidate, particularly when the area of knowledge to be assessed is not given. The interview could result in a mapping of (possible) knowledge and competence, which might be further assessed with other methods that provide more valid proof of the knowledge in question. Depending on what knowledge area the assessment covers, interviews could also be used in more convergent PLA. For example, an oral examination could give a better picture than a written test of what an individual knows in a theoretical subject area, if the knowledge is developed in untraditional ways and without learning the traditional way of presenting it with paper and pencil.

Standardized tests are another method used in PLA. A typical example is a scholastic aptitude test. A multiplechoice aptitude test can be used in the selection of applicants, for example, for higher education. The predictive test assesses knowledge independent of where the learning has taken place. Thus, any prior learning could be important when taking such a test, even if the convergent character of the method means a limitation of what is actually made visible.

Traditional tests – tests (or other assessment methods) used in the school system – could be used to assess prior learning too. However, a problematic issue could be that these tests are adapted to an organized learning in formal education, rather than to more divergent learning experiences from other contexts, which might reduce their usefulness in PLA. It should also be noted that all educational assessments to some extent could be a matter of PLA – as an assessor you cannot know if/what the students or pupils have learned in the class or somewhere else.

Authentic tests are still another group of methods in PLA, aiming at assessing competencies in an authentic or simulated environment. The rationality of using authentic tests in PLA is that the results of prior learning that has taken place outside school are assessed there too. These authentic tests are, for example, used in the assessment of vocational competencies developed in the work place, competencies that in this way are assessed in the original context of learning.

Theories of Learning Underpinning PLA

We can see how different theories of learning explicitly or implicitly underpin some of the different approaches to PLA that are discussed above. Here the portfolio method and the authentic assessment exemplify this and will be related to different theories of learning (these theories will not be described in detail here, but will only be mentioned briefly).

Experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) is the basis of many portfolio methods in PLA. The basic idea is the learning cycle, where concrete experience, observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation, etc., form a process of learning from experience. However, there is a discussion concerning how these methods value individual experiences and knowledge as compared to collective experiences and learning processes. Individual(istic) portfolio methods are thus questioned based on the assumption that informal learning in collective contexts is not valued in a fair way in these approaches.

The idea of situated learning (see, e.g., Lave and Wenger, 1991) is (at least implicitly) the basis of authentic assessment methods, where the ambition is to assess knowledge in the context of where it has been developed and thus is situated. The questions concern if these methods really become authentic and holistic, or if the result is a behavioristic and atomistic approach (the latter seems to be the case when detailed lists of required competencies are the basis of, for example, certain vocational qualifications). These (or this group of ) situated learning theories also help us understand problems with PLA in relation to transfer and mobility. From a situated perspective, it is not evident that prior learning from one context could be transferred and having the same value in another context, where the demands are actually different. The differences are related to tools (language as well as material tools) and to the social systems.

The Value of PLA

What is the value of developing different PLA methods? The main value is that PLA identifies the value of knowledge (stemming from prior learning). On the one hand, the knowledge could have an exchange value. When the PLA process results in a formal documentation of knowledge or competence, the exchange value means that the candidate through this documentation, for example, could be admitted to an education/training program, could get a job and/or a higher salary. More informal assessment or recognition processes could of course have similar results as well, where prior learning is given an exchange value. Further, the exchange value of knowledge, identified in PLA, is not limited to the individual level. For example, it might have an exchange value for a company to know, and be able to show potential customers, that there is a high level of competence among its employees. On the other hand, knowledge often has a use value. Thus, PLA is identifying knowledge that is useful. When we are aware of this knowledge, it is easier to use it, to put it into action. This value is also relevant on an individual as well as on an organizational level – the value for the company is not only the exchange value but also the possible utilization of the employees’ prior learning.

Critical Perspectives on PLA

The development of PLA has been discussed and criticized from different perspectives. Some of these discussions will be covered here, concerning the situation of prior learning/knowledge, the authenticity of authentic assessments, and the governing character of PLA. For a more extensive discussion, drawing on perspectives from assessment theory, the sociology of education, poststructuralism and situated knowledge/learning theory, activity, actor-network and complexity theory, and symbolic interactionism, see Andersson and Harris (2006).

PLA has been developed in a Western context, with an underpinning perspective on learning as an individual process. As mentioned briefly above in relation to the portfolio, this individualistic approach has been questioned, and not only in relation to the portfolio. The main point in this critique is that (particularly) informal learning is taking place in a collective process, which is better understood in terms of situated learning or situated knowledge (see, e.g., Michelson, 2006). A focus on assessing individuals, and individual learning outcomes, thus means that a lot of experiential learning remains invisible, in spite of the opposite ambition of PLA. The argument is against the Enlightenment epistemology and for a perspective of situated knowledge, or as Michelson (2006) puts it:

Reinscribed within a theory of situated knowledge, RPL can become a venue for examining how each of us moves back and forth between our own particular stories and the social production that is knowledge and for challenging oppressive taxonomies of knowledge and the power relationships they enact. It can grant visibility to knowledge that is valuable for its divergence from academic ways of knowing, not only its similarity, and affirm knowledge produced outside epistemologically-sanctioned locations, through dialogue within (and, when we are lucky, between) historically-situated communities. (Michelson, 2006: 157)

Are authentic assessments really authentic? As mentioned, some PLA approaches lean on assessment methods that are situated in an authentic or simulated context. The ambition is to assess in the situation where knowledge or competence was developed and is enacted. However, it could be argued that the assessment situation to some extent is artificial rather than authentic, even if it is situated in a context where informal learning takes place, outside the school context. It is not a part of the daily practice to be formally assessed when you use your knowledge (cf. Bowden and Marton, 1998). Thus the assessment results are not necessarily more valid in this case, even if they are viewed as authentic.

Do assessments adapted to the system provide a valid measure of prior learning that has taken place outside this (school) system? This exclusion of knowledge in, for example, the Procrustean RPL has already been discussed above, and is a matter of governing of what knowledge should count. However, PLA is not only governing what knowledge counts. In a discourse analysis of policy on adult education and lifelong learning, PLA is identified as a technique for constructing and governing the adult learner (Andersson and Fejes, 2005). When learning is assessed more broadly, new knowledge about the learners is produced, which could be the basis of a more extensive governing:

Assessment, including validation, is a technique that colonizes the human as a knowledgeable subject; he is created as a subject by being an object of knowledge production. One way of reasoning about this colonization of the entire subject is the objective of knowledge. Formal knowledge has been, and is, a way of controlling the subject. The documentation in itself is an objectification of the subject and is the starting point from where techniques of governing are set in motion. Knowledge about the subject to be governed is the basis of all governances (Foucault, 1991) and, therefore, informal knowledge has not been given the same attention. What we now see is a trend where the informal and non-formal competence/knowledge should be transformed into formal knowledge. Consequently, this knowledge will also be the foundation of governing and control. Everything you do, lifelong and lifewide, constitutes experiences that are part of the construction of the competent adult. The subject to be governed is constructed as a different subject than was previously the case. (Andersson and Fejes 2005: 610)


We have seen how the provision of PLA has developed in a divergent way – with differing aims, approaches, and methods, more or less adapted to, or potentially changing, the present system of education, and more or less convergent/ divergent. A particular approach also means that a certain epistemological position is taken – explicitly or implicitly. Independently of approach, a process of valuing knowledge is enacted through PLA, a process that identifies the exchange and/or use value of knowledge and that includes knowledge stemming from informal and nonformal learning to a higher extent than other educational assessments. However, there are also critical perspectives on PLA. Even if new types of learning/ knowledge are included, there are also processes of exclusion present in PLA. For example, PLA has been criticized for its individualistic approach, which possibly excludes knowledge that is developed and situated in collective processes. This way of defining what knowledge that counts is one side of the coin when it comes to critique of the governing aspect of PLA – the other side is the governing of the adult learner, where PLA means that the process of assessing a broader scope of learning also means that it is governing in a more extensive way as compared to traditional educational assessment.

See also: Access and Equity in Higher Education; Educational Measurement: Overview; Qualifications Frameworks and their Role in the Reform of Education and Training; Situated View of Learning.

P Andersson, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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