PLA with a Purpose: A Prior Learning Assessment Framework


A Prior Learning Assessment Framework

From this perspective, the framework is constructed around four “elements,” each of which contributes powerfully to the effectiveness of a PLA program:

  • ELEMENT 1: Ensures student-centered, faculty-driven practices
  • ELEMENT 2: Ensures consistency
  • ELEMENT 3: Maintains academic integrity within, across and among institutions
  • ELEMENT 4: Improves the portability of credit earned
  • For resources related to each element of the framework, go to this page.

PLA FrameworkElement 4Element 1Element 2Element 3


ELEMENT 1:  Ensures student-centered, faculty-driven practices

The policies that guide PLA activities on university and college campuses should be focused on student achievement and mobility, with the review of student work and the awarding of credit being the responsibility of discipline-appropriate faculty. The relevant policies provide guidance in student advising, pre-screening for eligibility for PLA, course match and transferability of credits awarded.

The following policies are required to ensure that PLA practices are student centered and faculty directed:

  • The chief academic officer within each institution should have the responsibility for overseeing and administering policies for all forms of PLA.
  • All institutions should have a single, primary point of contact for PLA, and efforts should be made to inform students about that point of contact.
  • Advising and pre-screening of students should be used to ensure they have a good understanding of PLA policies and practices, and that they are eligible (i.e., are viable candidates) for PLA, particularly in the case of portfolio-based assessment.
  • PLA credit should be transferable across public institutions of higher education in Ohio.
  • Whether PLA credit is considered as credit-in-residence should be guided by institutions’ academic policies as well as the needs of their students.
  • Any limit on the maximum number of credit hours a student may earn through PLA should be decided by individual institutional policies.  Many institutions have chosen a 25 percent maximum.
  • PLA credit should only be awarded to students already enrolled at a public college or university in Ohio.
  • Credit applicability to degree requirements should be ensured and mirror application of credit earned through courses taken at the institution
  • In the case of portfolio-based assessment, course(s) match(s) or block credit approaches should be identified by faculty through statewide course learning outcomes/competencies.


ELEMENT 2:  Ensures consistency

  • At the heart of PLA is the evaluation and granting of college credit for demonstrated learning, which requires a standard, agreed-upon process, transparent review protocols and faculty oversight that gives all institutions a common framework, consistency and quality of evaluation and credit application. These processes along with faculty oversight are prerequisites for ensured credit transfer across Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

    The following policies are required to ensure quality and consistency:

  • For all forms of PLA, all institutions should review their policies and practices for quality and consistency on a regular basis and make them readily available to students; in addition, they should ensure that all testing and assessments are fair and consistent.
  • With respect to the elements of portfolio-based assessment, a common statewide assessment rubric should be developed, which institutions can use in concert with their own standards for portfolio content and format. These standards should include, for example, each of the following:
    • Table of contents or listing of documents/artifacts
    • Course syllabus with description and learning outcomes or competencies
    • Current resume
    • Course-specific narrative with reflections
    • Course-specific evidence that learning has been achieved, which can be a number or combination of artifacts, demonstrated proficiency (i.e., written documents, performances, demonstrations, videos, training manuals, PowerPoint slide presentations, etc.).
  • With respect to institutional approaches to portfolio-based assessment:
    • Forms for tracking and record-keeping of students should be in place.
    • Information should be made available to students to assist in the development of a portfolio; this may take the form of a course, website modules or individual instruction.
  • For the assessment of PLA credit for military training and experience, all public institutions of higher education should ensure that their policies and practices are consistent with the provisions of Amended Substitute House Bill 488 (130th General Assembly), as well as the Chancellor’s directive for the baseline standards and procedures including the use of credit recommendations by the American Council on Education (ACE).


ELEMENT 3:  Maintains academic integrity within, across and among institutions

A critical concern is the quality and academic rigor of the credit review process for PLA. Research and experience suggest that most faculty members accept PLA as a valid educational concept. Yet, there is a fear of the possible lessening of quality in higher education and a potential betrayal of the fundamental purposes of education. Institutions’ PLA policies and practices must address these concerns by demonstrating an unswerving commitment to academic integrity based on written criteria and transparent processes with a strong focus on well-defined learning objectives.

The following policies are required to maintain academic integrity within and across public institutions of higher education – and for all forms of PLA:

  • All PLA assessments should be completed by institutionally-approved, discipline-appropriate faculty. Some institutions may choose other approaches based on current capacity and resources, but in such cases there should be clear evidence of faculty consultation/direction.
  • Rubrics should be established to guide faculty scoring, feedback and grading – for portfolios and other PLA approaches.
  • Professional development opportunities should be provided to faculty assessors and subject matter experts, as defined by each institution.
  • Timely return of assessments should be assured with a grade (a letter or Pass/Fail grade as institutionally determined) and appropriate feedback.
  • Students should be encouraged to align PLA with their majors or complementary disciplines as a strategy to shorten their degree paths; and, if pursuing PLA outside of their degree requirements, students should be advised about how these courses would take up their electives.
  • The compensation of faculty assessors and other subject matter experts should be determined by institutional policy.


ELEMENT 4:  Improves the portability of credit earned

The portability of credits is important for Ohio students and taxpayers alike, and must be consistent with the spirit of the state’s Articulation and Transfer policy. PLA credit should be transcripted and transferable across public institutions of higher education just like credit earned through the completion of course work.  

Ohio’s Articulation and Transfer Network’s Data Standards Committee is now discussing transcription and data collection issues for PLA. It will drive toward a common approach and standards that will be agreed upon by registrars at Ohio’s public institutions. However, what remains a larger issue are the decisions of academic policy (i.e., residency, PLA credit as a percent of all credits, etc.)  Therefore, attention to the following aspects of the PLA framework will help promote confidence in, and ensure portability of, credits earned through PLA options:

  • Institutions should track PLA credits by identifying the number of hours earned, the PLA format use and the course equivalent(s) in their data systems. This information should not be included on students’ transcripts, but should be accessible through the HEI system so the efficacy of PLA forms can be determined for policy purposes.
  • Posting PLA credits should be as timely as possible so as not to delay students’ forward progression and/or graduation.
  • If letter grades are given for PLA courses, they may be calculated into GPA, if consistent with institutional policy.
  • The fees students pay for PLA credit should reflect the cost of assessment, but not the cost of posting the grade and credit.
  • Institutions should be required to provide PLA data annually to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, including the following: (1) number of students earning credit for each PLA format; (2) number of credits awarded for each PLA format; (3) average number of credits awarded
    per student and range of credit awards; (4) course equivalents, both academic discipline and level; and (5) student academic progress after PLA award (i.e., the relationship between PLA credit and degree completion).
  • The determination of whether PLA credit is considered as credit-in-residence (or “native” credit) should be guided by institutions’ academic policies as well as the needs of their students.

This framework provides an essential foundation for creating awareness and building consensus on how best to implement campus-level PLA programs. It confirms the connection between implementation and results by reminding campus leaders, administrators, faculty and staff that the execution of any policy is not simply a matter of doing things, of sweating the details, or of making things happen. To the contrary, it’s a systematic process that requires determined leadership, aligned activities and a demand for quality and accountability.

Ultimately, this framework establishes criteria against which institutions’ performance can be assessed. Yet, once again, it is important to remember that institutions often need the flexibility to match the expectations of a statewide PLA system to their own institutional missions and learning needs of their students. Therefore, while the framework is a blueprint for campus-level action, institutions should be expected to make decisions and implement policies based on their own needs, and minor variances in the way these elements are handled should not cause alarm.