Portfolio Development: The Cornerstone of PLA


 The introduction of prior learning assessment has been one of the most significant occurrences in education in the past twenty years.

Post secondary institutions are faced with increasing numbers of older adults re-entering the education system. As well, there is increased emphasis on the need for continuously upgrading the skills and knowledge of the existing workforce in a highly competitive global economy. These institutions must also contend with a more diverse, steadily increasing adult population caused in part by changes in immigration policies and a decline in Canada’s birth rate.

Given such circumstances prior learning assessment is indeed a timely and appropriate strategy. It recognizes that adult learners enter educational institutions with rich clusters of post-secondary level skill and knowledge gained from a variety of experiences. Acknowledging the educational validity of prior learning and equating it to the outcomes of post-secondary courses or workplace competencies recognizes adults ability to learn important skills and knowledge outside of school and enriches our educational institutions.

A key element in the prior learning assessment process is the preparation of the portfolio. This document is a major piece of work and its completion requires a high level of commitment and strong motivation by the adult learner.

The portfolio is widely recognized as an essential ingredient in a multi-faceted service for adult development not only for earning potential college credit, but also for assisting with career change, increasing self-esteem and confidence and organizing one’s lifetime accomplishments.

The portfolio process itself provides some specific components that not only help adults to identify relevant prior learning but also facilitate re-entry into post-secondary education and possible vocational change. A growing number of learners seeking credit for prior learning will likely have been away from school for several years. Many of them may lack confidence in their ability to learn and will need guidance and support as they attempt to dispel any previously acquired negative attitudes associated with formal learning. The process of identifying one’s prior learning via the portfolio route is a rigorous task and in the initial stages it is usually confusing and difficult for most learners. With appropriate support however, it can be an extremely affirming experience and a significant exercise in critical thinking. Consequently it is especially important to provide some formal support mechanisms to assist adult learners with this demanding task. Among the range of options are: counselling, mentoring, education/career alternatives and self-instructional materials. Adults should also be provided with clear information concerning the steps involved in the process of assessment including examples of portfolio materials.

The process used to orient adult learners to the PLAR process is in itself an important learning event. It serves as a form of instruction for one of the most important and basic learning activities: identifying how one learns and in the post-secondary area it usually takes the form of a credit course. In addition to enhancing the adult’s awareness of his/her learning style, the activity is a vital link between the assessment of prior learning and the identification of future learning and career development plans. The PLAR process has many other advantages: it signals that post-secondary institutions employers and credentialing bodies are serious about the way they treat the adult learner and acknowledges the value of the learning which they bring both to the workplace and the educational institution.

In the educational area an assessment course which has credit value also makes a clear and direct statement about the educational worth of the assessment process to the learner, the institution and the community which it serves. The portfolio course is a useful method of monitoring one’s progress, providing support and assistance as necessary.

The fact that learning is assessed as being creditable is not generally a sufficient basis for the granting of credit. In most cases the validity of evaluating a learning experience for credit and recognition depends upon a clearly demonstrated relationship to a specific diploma program or course objectives and workplace competencies. The preparation of the portfolio is widely reported to be an empowering learning experience for the adult learner, by adding value for the learner via increased positive self-knowledge. It also enhances the adult learner’s basic understanding of the assessment of learning and tends to reinforce the individual’s ability and skill in accepting responsibility for his/her own learning and of the mutual accountability with the faculty.

Enhanced self-esteem and a more informed understanding of the processes involved in self- assessment are in themselves significant learning outcomes in a society in which four or five career changes over the course of one’s lifetime are predicted to be the norm for many adults.