Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a comprehensive initiative that utilizes technology to assess prior experiential learning of working adult students. Broadly, PLA covers not only experience-based learning from one’s life and work, but also transfer credits earned elsewhere that adults wish to apply towards college degrees. The fundamental principle here is – “what you know is more important than where you learned it—and a method is available to measure that learning.” For the purposes of Future Generations University, the specific focus is to give students a way to validate what they already know how to do in community development. This existing expertise may translate into credit for Future Generations University courses.


Earning Master’s Degree credit utilizing PLA can help students in the following ways:

  • Conserve effort. Avoid unnecessary training in areas already mastered.
  • Save money. Less time to degree can mean lower tuition costs.
  • Accelerate academic progress. Placing out of courses may allow early graduation.
  • Professional development. Demonstrate to employers (via public portfolio) how prior experience adds value to the student’s skill set.
  • Gain understanding. Comprehend the many ways experience applies to learning throughout life, whether at school, on the job, or in the community.


  1. The University provides all new and continuing students an opportunity to create a PLA portfolio collection. Critical to both is the instruction received in PRC 601 on creating effective ePortfolios. Students learn how to describe and document their prior learning as they develop effective ePortfolio content.
  2. At the end of the semester in which the ePortfolio is completed, students submit their PLA portfolio to be reviewed for potential course credit.
  3. The PLA portfolio is evaluated by the university for content expert and academic rigor using a best practices assessment model. Students must provide compelling descriptions of their experiences as well as acceptable documentation.
  4. Course credit is assigned based on demonstrated prior learning. Students may place out of approved courses based on existing knowledge and experience.


This section outlines the major components of a PLA portfolio, including:

  1. Educational and Professional Goals Essay
  2. Resume or CV
  3. Analysis of Learning
  4. Documentation

Educational and Professional Goals Essay

The goals essay is a descriptive statement of a student’s future plans and frames the PLA portfolio to follow. It places prior learning in the context of the student’s educational goals, explaining how experience has met these goals. Past learning and future learning should fit together in a tentative plan that meets the requirements of the Master’s Degree in Applied Community Development.

An effective essay clearly states immediate and long-range goals, and then builds a connection to the student’s past in a general way. This tentative educational plan should consist of the skills and knowledge still to be acquired. The goals essay should answer these questions:

  • What do you want to accomplish professionally and educationally in the next 10 years?
  • What skills and knowledge will you need to be able to reach these goals?
  • Have you acquired any of this learning as a result of your experiences before entering the Master’s Degree program?
  • What learning will you need to gain while enrolled in the Master’s Degree program?

The Resume or CV

A personal resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV) should be included in the student’s PLA portfolio. It serves as a brief history of previous work and educational experience. The resume/CV should contain the following information:

  • Personal Data: Name, home address, telephone number, etc.
  • Formal Education: A chronological listing of post-high school education, identifying institutions, dates of matriculation, study concentrations, and degrees or certificates awarded.
  • Work Positions: Beginning with the current position, list past work experiences. Include the name of the agency or business, dates of employment, the position held, and a brief description of the duties and responsibilities of each position.
  • Other Community Activities: Briefly list activities or offices held in voluntary associations, service organizations, community projects, etc.
  • Informal Education Experiences: Projects, seminars, conferences, or training programs; including the dates you were involved.

Analyzing Areas of Learning

Learning Analysis is a broad description, including proof, of what the student has learned, presented in a systematic, organized way. When analyzing learning, the student will want to communicate very clearly what he/she knows and can do in a particular subject area. Each subject area analyzed should be presented as a separate entry in your Mahara ePortfolio.

The learning gained in each subject area needs to be supported by proof and analysis, explaining what has been learned in the subject as well as how and where the learning has been used. The analysis of learning is the most important information in the portfolio. It is the learning detailed in the analysis that is considered when determining whether or not to award degree credit for prior learning.

Writing an Analysis of Learning

Step 1 – Identifying areas of prior learning-

The first task is to review Future Generations University’s list of ten core Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs) as well as the three Specialization Learning Competencies (SLCs) that apply to the course of study. The student will identify all PLOs and SLCs in which he/she has substantial prior experience, and create an ePortfolio entry for each relevant learning area.

Program Learning Outcomes

  1. Graduates can purposefully apply SEED-SCALE and related theories as comprehensive frameworks for promoting and implementing social change.
  2. Graduates can analyze and synthesize information from online, print, and experiential sources, resulting in concise, academically honest, written and oral exposition.
  3. Graduates can employ quantitative and qualitative evidence-based methods to monitor and critically evaluate programs, making changes based on an assessment of results.
  4. Graduates can articulate and apply relevant leadership and management styles in various community and professional contexts.
  5. Graduates can identify and frame research questions in the context of community change and apply useful methods and levels of inquiry.
  6. Graduates can deploy technology tools that advance collaborative research and collective learning.
  7. Graduates can demonstrate skills in respectful dialogue, facilitation, and cross-cultural communication.
  8. Graduates can design and complete an original creative work (the e-Portfolio), integrating knowledge and competencies acquired from field research, experiences, interactions with peers and the community, and lessons from coursework.
  9. Graduates can employ context-appropriate resource management strategies for natural resources, human personnel, and finance.
  10. Graduates can demonstrate vision and imagination in their community work, course work, and engagement with others.

Specialization Learning Competencies

  1. Graduates can demonstrate knowledge of local non-profit guidelines and effectively navigate the legal frameworks under which they operate.
  2. Graduates exhibit inclusive approaches to community leadership demonstrated through effective management and facilitation skills. Graduates can articulate effective branding and communication strategies using a diverse variety of media types.
  3. Graduates can articulate effective branding and communication strategies using a diverse variety of media types.
Linguistic Development Education
  1. Graduates can competently contribute to innovative language and development curricula.
  2. Graduates exhibit professional confidence in monitoring, researching, designing, evaluating, and propagating curricula in the context of sustainable development.
  3. Graduates collaborate with government, public and private educational bodies, and linguistic and development disciplines in service to diverse populations.

Step 2 – Explaining Skills and Knowledge Gained-

Be specific in substantiating specific skills and concrete knowledge gained in each of the PLO and SLC domains identified in Step 1. Skills are what one is able to do, services are what one is able to provide. Skills statements usually begin, “I learned to…” or I am able to…” or “I can…” Knowledge is the theoretical, factual or practical understanding of a subject. Knowledge statements begin, “I learned that…” or “I discovered that…” or “I understand that…” Knowledge of a subject is the explanation for applying specific skills or methods in a particular situation. An explanation of skills and knowledge might begin: “I am able to conduct a staff training session (skill) that incorporates my knowledge of group dynamics (knowledge) and the needs of employees in an organization (knowledge).”

After this opening statement, explain—and if possible provide external validation or evidence–how the relevant activities were designed and conducted, and why they were handled in this particular way. Extensive detail is not necessary; stating essential or central points is sufficient.

Step 3 – Illustration by Example-

From personal experience, give examples showing how knowledge and skills have been used. The example should be as brief as possible, emphasizing the most significant information to give the assessment team a sense of the amount and quality of learning. The student’s role in the experience needs to be clear. For example, when referencing a specific community development program, was this in the role of designer, instructor, a co-instructor, member of the staff, or other?

In this section, the following information should be provided:

  1. Where – Identify the particular place experience occurred.
  2. When – Length of time (i.e. dates) involved in this activity.
  3. What – Describe the activities most significant in acquiring skills and knowledge.
  4. With whom– Identify the important people involved in learning situation, including their credentials. Include supervisors, co-workers, instructors, clients.


The final step in preparing the portfolio is gathering and organizing documentation to support prior learning. Documentation is evidence that the prior learning experiences identified in the resume and analysis of learning (illustrations and descriptions of settings) actually occurred. Documentation verifies:

  • Employment
  • Volunteer positions
  • In-service training and non-credit courses
  • Community services
  • Accomplishments, especially products from past learning experiences.

Letters of verification are a common form of documentation. Several other types of documentation may also be appropriate. The type used depends on the experience.

Letters of verification should follow these guidelines:

  1. The person furnishing the letter should have directly observed student during the experience and be able to discuss his/her role or participation in that experience.
  2. The person writing the letter of verification should identify his/her relationship to student (supervisor, peer, subordinate, etc.)
  3. The letter should be one of verification, rather than recommendation.
  4. The letter should be written on the official letterhead stationery of the company or organization

If the documentation is a product from the student’s experience, such as a proposal or other work sample or piece of art, verification may be needed proving the authenticity of the work. Documentation needs to be organized and may either immediately follow an analysis or be contained in a separate section. If separate, it should appear in the same sequence as the analysis. See examples of types of documentation for various activities in Table 1 below.

It is easy to provide too much documentation; documentation just needs to be adequate to verify participation and accomplishment in the experiences identified in the portfolio. In the case of numerous choices (for example, student has written many proposals or newspaper articles), three are sufficient to show a variety of purpose or development over time.

Table 1. Examples of Documentation

Type of Activity Types of Documentation
Work Experience
  • Letters of verification from Superiors, peers, clients Job descriptions
  • Awards
  • Letters of commendation
  • Promotion evaluation
  • Case studies
  • Licenses
  • Evidence of membership in professional organizations
  • Photographs and videos
Community Service Activities
  • Letters of corroboration from co-volunteers, clients served, supervisor
  • Commendations
  • Awards
  • Newspaper and magazine clippings
  • Photographs and videos
Non College Courses and Training
  • Transcripts or letter attesting enrollment
  • Other evidence of completion – certification, diploma
Specific accomplishments
  • Published writing
  • Portfolio of art work
  • Musical compositions
  • Exhibits
  • Speeches
  • Programs and performances
  • Writing samples
  • Audiovisual presentations
  • Proposals written
  • Instructional materials designed or developed
  • Bibliography of readings


After the prior learning portfolio is complete, it may be submitted for evaluation and potential course credit. To petition for course credit, a Summary Statement of Learning must be prepared for each relevant course.

Summary Statements of Learning

The Summary Statement of Learning is a brief summary of the prior experiences documented in the PLA portfolio in each specific course area (i.e. Project Management) being petitioned for credit. The statements should be brief, targeted, and reference description and documentation of relevant learning in the PLA portfolio. To guide this process, the student creates a list of all PLOs and SLCs corresponding to portfolio entries and then applies these to the document that maps PLOs and SLCs to each course (provided by PRC 601 professor). The Summary Statement of Learning addresses courses that have PLOs/SLCs which closely match prior experiences.

Portfolio Evaluation and Credit Assignment

Upon submission, a student’s PLA portfolio will be evaluated by both the PLA Director and a content expert (typically a designated faculty member). Credit will be received for petitioned courses if the following two broad criteria are met:

  1. PLA portfolio entries adhere to the proper format, as described above
  2. PLA portfolio entries successfully demonstrate prior learning in one or more course domains

Up to nine (9) credits can be based on prior learning.

NOTE: Elements of this document are adapted from best practices published by the U.S. Department of Education, the American Council in Education, the Council for Adult and Experiential Education, and Lincoln University