Prior Learning Assessment Guidelines

What is Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)?

Prior Learning Assessment is the evaluation of any learning that did not take place in a traditional college classroom or that was garnered outside of traditional college courses. This can include, but is not limited to, on the job training, community service, volunteer service, independent study or hobbies, professional development courses, and training at conference seminars or workshops. Students demonstrate the college level learning they have acquired through any of these methods, or a combination of one or more, and are assessed through a portfolio of prior learning experience.

In addition, reflecting on prior learning experience and relating it to college level learning is a valuable exercise unto itself; it provides the student with the opportunity to analyze what they have learned. PLA goes hand in hand with the non-traditional format of the Adult Degree Completion Program. The student can identify potential learning experiences and use that learning where it would fit best: to fulfill requirements within their major, or as liberal arts electives.

Credits are granted by the institution to students who can prove the level of knowledge they have acquired outside of academia over an extended period of time. In addition, credits are granted not based upon the experience itself, but the level of learning and knowledge obtained through the experience, which is presented through a well-crafted portfolio. Students must demonstrate their learning through lived experiences via the following process:

PLA Application Steps

1. Upon expressing interest in obtaining PLA credits, the student will discuss the process with their advisor in a scheduled meeting. The student will be strongly encouraged to schedule a meeting with the appropriate division chair, to discuss the merits of his/her request, before proceeding with an application.

2. Students must complete the PLA application form which will also include the submission of the student’s resume. Upon completion, student will submit it to the PLA Committee for initial review. The committee will review the student’s application to determine whether or not the Prior Learning appears to have merit worthy of valid academic credit.

3. Upon the PLA committee’s approval of the application, the student will meet with their academic advisor and the chair of the appropriate division to discuss the merits of his/her request, before proceeding with the portfolio. After this review, the student and academic advisor are notified by the division chair of the outcome of the application.

4. Upon approval of the application by both the PLA Committee and the appropriate academic division chair, the student will attend the PLA Workshop to prepare for the creation of the portfolio (see the Portfolio Preparation section below for more information).

Portfolio Preparation

General Information:

Students pursuing three credits or more in Prior Learning will first attend a mandatory PLA workshop. This 3-hour workshop will include critical information about academic writing, translating the lived experience into scholarly pursuits, beginning scholarly research strategies, and how to continue this work by utilizing the on-campus resources available to students.

Students may consult the PLA committee for guidance during the creation of the portfolio, and may also view previously submitted portfolios for insights as to organization, construction, and creation.

The following pages describe the required content areas of an academic learning portfolio. Students may apply PLA credits toward a major field of study or elective courses, but not towards general education, nursing or education requirements.

  • Students may pursue up to a maximum of 30 credits in PLA
  • PLA cannot be used towards core requirements
  • Students may pursue PLA at any level in their major, provided that a minimum of 12 credits at the upper level are successfully completed at Mount Saint Mary College

Associated Costs

The application fee of $50.00 is due when the completed application is reviewed and accepted by the appropriate division. Upon granting of credit, the student will be responsible for paying 25% of the current accelerated tuition rate. Tuition will be calculated based on the date of formal approval by the Vice President of Academic Affairs.

Contents of Portfolio

Students must demonstrate the level of academic learning gained through experience by presenting all of the following:

  • A personal statement, along with professional credentials, outlining academic goals and accomplishments.
  • Detailed descriptions of the learning experiences you are seeking credit for.
  • Other artifacts such as certifications, professional development, military training, etc.

Special Notes About the Portfolio

Students may submit only ONE comprehensive portfolio that combines his/her prior learning for which credit is sought. In addition, the portfolio must be completed and approved by the Vice President for Academic Affairs prior to the start of the semester in which the student intends to graduate. No extensions will be considered.

Review, Approval, and Granting of Credits

Once a student submits the final portfolio to the PLA committee, it will be routed from the committee chair to the appropriate division chair for approval; then on to the VPAA for final approval. The Committee chair then notifies the registrar’s office so that approved credit(s) will be recorded on the student’s transcript as transfer credits with a grade of P. The final step is for the committee chair to notify the office of Student Accounts so that the student will be billed per the tuition costs outlined above.

Undergraduate Student Portfolio

A portfolio submitted to the Committee for PLA at Mount Saint Mary College is a collection of evidence: It is a formal communication presented by the student to the college as a part of an appeal requesting credit for learning outside the college classroom. The portfolio makes its case by identifying college-level learning clearly and succinctly, so that faculty can use it, alone or in combination with other evidence, as the basis for their evaluation allowing either course-equivalency or liberal arts elective credits toward a degree.

The composition of a portfolio is not simply an account of your prior learning. It is in and of itself, a learning process. The process of building a portfolio offers the student an opportunity to recapitulate key experiences, analyze and interpret them, and articulate and critique how these experiences contributed to what they have learned. The portfolio process has the potential to significantly deepen understanding of our experiences and how they have influenced who we are and how we live our lives.

The portfolio is a compilation of personal, professional, and academic artifacts that demonstrate the level of knowledge gained from their prior learning. These artifacts must clearly demonstrate that one has had the experience, gained something from it that would benefit them professionally, personally, or academically, and be able to make a connection between that experience and their educational goals.

The challenge of a portfolio is to bring experiences together with applicable theories and concepts from the academic disciplines. In doing so, students can become ever keener observers of their own experiences while also growing in their capacity to understand conceptually abstract material. Well-written portfolios provide ample evidence of the knowledge students have gained, for which they intend to receive college credit. Students must document their specific learning competencies which they have acquired through prior experience. Learning competencies are: knowledge, abilities, and/or skills that students have acquired through their prior learning and that relate to college-level content. In the portfolio process, students must provide convincing documentation, which is the evidence, written or performed, substantiating that knowledge, skills, and abilities have indeed been learned from their prior experience(s).

Upon the review of the application and portfolio by the academic division, students may or may not be granted college credits for their prior learning. The total of credit hours that may be granted may not exceed 30, or the equivalent of one full year of college study. Students may apply these credits ONLY toward a major field of study or liberal arts elective courses. They are not applicable toward general education, nursing, or education requirements.

The written content of the portfolio must meet the high college-level standards articulated on the following pages, including the following components, and addressing the following issues:

1) Title Sheet. Include your name, student ID #, address, date of submission, phone number, and MSMC email address.

2) Table of Contents. Include a one-page reference to all subsequent sections of your portfolio by page number.

3) Letter of Intent. Write a letter addressed to the Committee for Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) which explicitly states the reasons for submitting your portfolio and the outcomes which you expect to emerge. The letter of intent will include the following:

  • Learning outcomes you intend to prove
  • Area(s) of expertise you intend to demonstrate
  • Number of credits you are hoping to earn
  • Type of credit you will be pursuing

4) Current résumé. Submit a current résumé of one or two pages, to include a synopsis of your educational background and work history. Include relevant professional memberships, awards, commendations, publications, and supplemental experience or achievements (i.e. Speak fluent French; or Professional Certification in Banking or Human Resources).

5) Syllabus for Course(s). If your portfolio is course-specific (as opposed to general elective), obtain a MSMC syllabus for each course pertaining to your portfolio content (see a committee member for assistance). A syllabus will serve as the basis for your portfolio goals and learning outcomes.

6) Competencies and Learning Outcomes. The learning outcomes and competencies are the heart of your portfolio. For course-specific portfolios, they will reflect the syllabus of the targeted course. This section will most directly influence the credit your portfolio will earn. The competencies and learning outcomes also constitute the most challenging part of your portfolio to write. Your competencies will reflect the natural, logical, and expected outcomes of your experiences.

In this section, you will give a description (with documentation) of the context in which your knowledge was gained. You will analyze, trace, and document your previous experiences, relating them to the knowledge and skills required by the target discipline or course of your portfolio. This section will include specific details and insight from your past experiences and make systematic, logical connections to the theories and concepts of the discipline/course in which you seek credit.

To repeat in different words: this section of the portfolio requires critical reflection. It asks you to use your ability to synthesize the meaning and impact of your previous experience. At the same time you are being asked to connect that meaning and impact to the requirements and criteria of the college course for which you seek credit. You will need an awareness and understanding that it is you who is responsible for presenting your learning outcomes and competencies to the college in a narrative with documentation so strong and compelling that there is no doubt about the credit you will earn in the portfolio.

Length and Merit

The length of this section may vary from five to fifteen pages, depending on the type and number of credits you are seeking. Factors which may affect length include: subject area, quantity and type of documentation, and the theoretical complexity of your knowledge on the subject. Specific detail and personal insight in this section is likely to develop a stronger case and earn you a maximum number of credits.

The quality of your writing for describing your competencies and learning outcomes is critical; you must demonstrate that you know and understand your subject area, the quantity and type of documentation most appropriate for your subject area, and your knowledge about the subject. You will need to employ a writing style such as MLA, APA, or Chicago Style depending on your subject content.

To aid you in this endeavor, you are encouraged to utilize the Mount’s Writing Center. The Writing Center’s primary function is to support students as they’re completing academic writing skills. The Writing Center’s team of trained writing tutors assists Mount students in all stages of the writing process: brainstorming and organizing ideas; structuring sentences, paragraphs, and essays; strengthening argumentation; incorporating research and appropriate systems of citation; improving grammar and style; and more! To learn more about the Writing Center’s resources, please contact them at 845-569-3413 to schedule an appointment. The Writing Center is located in room 118 of the Dominican Center.

To Process Knowledge

You must know how to:

  • Analyze the components,
  • Distinguish crucial information from the trivial,
  • Associate new information with stored facts,
  • Integrate information from many sources to solve problems,
  • Gain new awareness,
  • Reflect on the applicability of your learned outcomes and competencies not only to self, but also to the world.

To Express Learning Competencies:

Cognitive skills which will aid in expressing your learning competencies are:

  • The ability to see patterns and connections in diverse information.
  • The ability to organize and communicate these relationships.
  • The ability to conceptualize many sides of a controversial issue, to understand the underlying issues and differing perspectives, and to effectively resolve informational conflict.
  • The ability to learn from your experiences – you should be able to generate behavioral alternatives, to analyze a particular behavior in the context of another's behavior, to determine the complexity and multi-dimensionality of intellect, and to change or open your mind.

To Write a Successful Narrative:

Your narrative, to be successful and to earn the maximum credit, may describe your learning competencies as those which:

  • Describe your knowledge of the subject;
  • Specify when, where, and how you acquired the knowledge;
  • Reflect your own strengths and weaknesses in context of these experiences;
  • Relate your experiences to specific course expectations and theories which have specific learning outcomes (which may offer equivalency credits);
  • Have specific documentation;
  • Elaborate upon the relationships between your documentation and the learning competencies you introduce and identify;
  • Connect to present experience and future goals.

7) Supporting Documentation. The material which you submit to prove your claims of college-level learning outcomes and competencies is called documentation. Supporting documentation is the skeleton, the supporting foundation of your portfolio and must specifically be identified with each learning outcome and competency.

Effective documentation:

  • Provides direct evidence and a coherent account of your competencies and college-level learning outcomes;
  • Supports your narrative, specifically including learning outcomes and their contexts;
  • Accounts for the significance of your learning in terms of life goals and disciplinary knowledge.

Evidence may include audio or video cassettes, CD's, DVD's, candidate-created websites, photographs, and written evidence, such as licenses, certificates, and other examples (see below). Your documentation should be specifically noted in your text as you discuss each learning competency and outcome. Organize and edit your documentation carefully to that request.

Examples of documentation can include, but are not limited to:

  • Job descriptions
  • Awards, certificates, letters, references, or job verifications
  • Diplomas for previous degrees
  • Licenses granted by state or national agencies
  • Scores on licensing exams
  • Personnel evaluations
  • Evidence of promotion
  • Memberships in professional trade organizations (showing also their requirements for membership)
  • Newspaper or magazine clippings demonstrating evidence of your experiences, or relating directly to you or your company
  • Examples of written or artistic work
  • Demonstration of dance, artistic or oral performance, or instruction on audio or video cassette, CD, DVD, candidate-created website, or photographs
  • Evidence of adopted suggestions or outcomes
  • Verification of completed course, workshops, seminars, and other educational events

8) Annotated Bibliography. At the conclusion of your portfolio, include a list and brief description of all the books, articles, pamphlets, and other sources, electronic or in print, to which you referred. Use standard MLA, Chicago Style, or APA format and conventions. This list will strengthen the theoretical foundation of your learning and make your presentation more compelling.

9) Criteria by Which You Will be Evaluated

Please note: Course-specific portfolios will require this section.

The appropriate Division Chair may consider the following criteria:

  • Your ability to state and explain learning competencies, as you also include specific details and insights.
  • Your ability to trace and document meaning in performance and behavior;
  • Your ability to describe and analyze the context in which your learning competencies and outcomes were developed.
  • Your ability to interpret, analyze, and transfer knowledge, learning competencies, outcomes, and personal attributes into leadership roles.
  • Your ability to synthesize data and experiential situations for use in problem-solving and decision-making areas.
  • Your ability to relate professional knowledge and/or core competencies embedded in your experiences to concepts, theories, and research pertaining to the relevant discipline of your portfolio.
  • Your ability to document each competency and learning outcome.
  • Your ability to demonstrate college-level competency in writing.

10) Procedural Steps That May Help in Your Academic Portfolio Preparation

  • Make an appointment with your Academic Advisor prior to starting any portfolio to sort the details and procedures for the process.
  • Identify and list the competencies and college-level outcomes you believe you can support with documentation, as well as the academic resources you will use.
  • Identify and list the course(s) which may best match your college-level learning competencies and knowledge.
  • Gather supporting documentation which you will specifically key to each outcome.
  • Attend the PLA Workshop