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Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a term used to describe learning gained outside a traditional academic environment. Put another way, it's learning and knowledge your students acquire while living their lives: working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the military, studying independently, volunteering or doing community service, and studying open source courseware. In short, PLA is the evaluation and assessment of an individual's life learning for college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training. PLA is not confined to portfolio assessment, which is simply one type of PLA (as are CLEP tests, ACE evaluations, challenge exams, etc.).

Portfolio-based assessments - Evaluations of student portfolios. A portfolio is a compilation of documents or other evidence that demonstrates college-level learning. These are reviewed by faculty at the institution and credit is awarded based on their assessment of the portfolio. More details can be found here.

Evaluation of Local Training - Program evaluations of non-collegiate instructional programs done by individual colleges.

American Council on Education (ACE) Guides - Published credit recommendations for formal instructional programs offered by non-collegiate agencies, both civilian employers and the military

Challenge Exams - Local tests developed by a college to verify learning achievement

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams - A series of tests developed by the College Board initially for AP High School courses, including 34 exams in 19 subject areas. For more information visit

College Level Examination Program (CLEP) Exams - Tests of college material offered by the College Board. For more information visit

Excelsior College Examination Program - Formerly, Regents College Exams or ACT/PEP Exams, offered by Excelsior College, NY. For more information visit

DSST Credit by Exam Program - Formerly known as the DANTES Program, owned and administered by Prometric, tests knowledge of both lower-level and upper-level college material through 38 exams. For more information visit

International Baccalaureate Programs - The International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme is an internationally accepted qualification for entry into institutes of higher education. The Diploma Program is designed for students aged 16 to 19; it is a demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations. Graduates of the IB program must demonstrate competency in languages, social studies, the experimental sciences and mathematics. In addition the program has three core requirements that are included to broaden the educational experience and challenge students to apply their knowledge and understanding. To receive a diploma, students must achieve a minimum score of 24 out of a possible 45 points, as well as satisfactory participation in the creativity, action, service requirement. For more information visit

Professional Licensure - Professional licensure protects the public by enforcing standards that restricts practice to qualified individuals who have met specific qualifications in education, work experience, and exams. Licensure is a means by which "permission to practice" is regulated. Licensure is required by law.

Certification - Certification is a designation earned by a person that ensures the individual is qualified to perform a task or job. Certification differs from licensure in that certification is an employment qualification and not a legal requirement for practicing a profession.

Apprenticeship - Apprenticeship is a combination of on-the-job training and related instruction in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. Apprenticeship programs can be sponsored by individual employers, joint employer and labor groups, and/or employer associations. (

Credit (or college credit or semester credit hours) - The term "credit" or "credit hours" is used by colleges and universities to track a student's progress through their degree. Each course is worth a certain number of credits (3 for many courses). One of the requirements for graduation is that students must have accumulated a certain number of credit hours (usually 60 for an associates degree and 120 for a bachelor's degree). Students can earn credit by taking courses in the classroom or online. Students can also earn credit through PLA, as detailed in this website.

Degree Program (or program of study) - While you may be familiar with the terms "bachelor's degree" or "associates degree," each institution offers more specific types of degrees, such as "Bachelor of University Studies Degree, "Bachelor of Arts in History," "Associate of Science in Early Childhood Education," "Associate of Applied Science in Nursing," etc. In many cases, "degree program" can often mean the same thing a "major." Each degree program has certain requirements that must be fulfilled in order to obtain that degree (and in particular, certain courses that must be completed in a classroom, online, or through PLA). These include courses directly related to the area of study (so nursing students must take certain nursing courses), general education requirements (courses that all students must take, regardless of their area of study, such as English), and in some cases, electives. Some degree program requirements allow for students to make choices (for example for some degrees, you might choose which history course you take, but you still must take one), while others do not. Students cannot be awarded PLA credit for courses that are not part of their degree program.

General education requirements - Also known as "gen ed" or "core classes," these are courses that all students at the same degree level must take, regardless of what their area of focus (major) is. These are typically introductory courses in different subjects, such as math, English, humanities, public speaking, natural sciences, and many others. Depending on your degree program, students may have some choice in how they fulfill this requirement (for example, you may be able to chose between biology and chemistry for your natural sciences requirement).

Electives - requirements are part of some degree programs, where the student can choose which courses he or she wants to take. The degree of choice depends on the degree program. So, in one case a student might have a "social science elective," meaning her or she can pick any social science course (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) to fulfill that requirement. In other degrees, it may be more open-ended, allowing students to take nearly any course offered by the institution to fulfill the requirement. It important to note that you cannot "double up" on electives and other degree requirements (for example, if Algebra is required as part of the general education requirement, it cannot also be used as an elective). As a general rule, associates degrees tend to have many less electives than bachelor's degrees.

Other terms for PLA - It is important to note that many different terms are floating around, such as "lifelong learning," "experiential credit," "credit for experience," "experiential learning," and many similar terms. In many cases, these mean exactly the same thing we mean when we say "prior learning assessment." However, it is important to understand that PLA does not award credit simply for experiences, but only for learning. See our explanation for more details.