Prior Learning + New Learning = Deepening Existing Knowledge

Donna Gentry, a Communications major, completed her Prior Learning Assessment Portfolio, earning 36 credits for college-level knowledge that she gained through her professional and personal experiences. She wrote for the following courses that focused on her major and greatly enhanced her professional work in teaching adults and designing corporate trainings:

  • CCM 320 Public Presentations
  • CCM 321 Small Group Communication
  • CCM 322 Interpersonal Communication
  • CCM 323 Effective Listening: From Comprehension to Critical Evaluation
  • CCM 324 Nonverbal Communication
  • CCM 328 The Communication of Affirmation
  • CCM 329 Healing Communication
  • CCM 336 Humor and Communication
  • COL 432 Leadership Communication
  • COL 426 Team Building: Managing Work Groups
  • CTD 440 Principles of Instructional Design
  • CTD 446 Helping Adults Learn

In Donna’s final reflection she wrote, in part:

I feel a great sense of pride every time I complete an essay.  When I reflect on my career my accomplishments and experiences I think to myself, “I really did a lot.  I really know a lot.”  And I learn something new about myself with each essay.  I am reminded to use good listening skills, I am reminded to make the conscience effort good interpersonal communication requires and the patience and self-awareness it takes to be a better communicator.  PLA reminds me of all these things and more.  My self-worth has never been so solid.

Donna talks about her PLA journey filled with benefits and tips for success here:

So! Much! More! Than Credit

I’ve been publicly prattling a lot about Prior Learning Assessment lately. For example:

Here

Here, and

Here.

But I fear that the important things about PLA are not getting enough attention. So let me say it loudly and in a bright font here:

PLA is about earning credit – and it is about so! much! more! than earning credit.

Many thanks to cogdogblog on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

I could go on and on about the so! much! more!, but instead, let some of our students tell you. Below is a list of students who share their experiences with the PLA program at Marylhurst University. Some are videos, some are written testimonials, and all tell great stories about the ways in which PLA challenged them, benefited them, and changed their perspectives on their experiences and themselves!

That’s right: the process of doing PLA — the process of reflecting critically on their experiences, making new meaning from those experiences, articulating those experiences in new ways — changed them. In some cases, the process resulted in pretty significant transformative learning.

Thanks to all of our PLA students who are willing to reflect on their experiences, one more time.

Imagine This: Doing-By-Learning

Thanks to Mark Brannan on Flickr for making this image available.

Traditionally, higher education has been in place to prepare us to do. And it still seems to be in place for that purpose. First you learn; then you can do. First this; then that. And if you do that first, you will either regret not doing this first and come back to it, or you will continue to do that, but not be happy or find meaning in your life.

Higher ed seems to operate from this idea; its entire structure is focused on it:

  • Learn first; then do. This here piece of paper that says you learned makes you qualified to do, so go forth and do! (Oh – and you can stop learning now. That part is over, unless you want to keep learning, in which case you can go to grad school.)

Thankfully, engaging adult learners in higher education seems to have helped us think a little bit differently:

  • Ah – you went and did first. That’s cool! You’ve done all this stuff; now reflect on it and learn what it means (and by the way you can get credit for that through Prior Learning Assessment while you’re at it), and then learn some more. You think differently about it – about you – now? Great! Icing on the diploma cake! But now that you’ve done all that, and learned more, and now that you have our paper in hand that certifies your learning, you can go do, again. Because our piece of paper here says that you’re qualified to do more, or do different, in a better job for higher pay and a better life. (Oh – and if you want to keep learning, go to grad school. Doing is not for learning.)

I want to turn this upside down, make it do cartwheels, get all dizzy and mixed up. I have no doubt about the power of learning-to-do, or in learning-by-doing. But I have a hunch that there could be more power — more energy, more possibility, more long-term outcomes — in doing-by-learning.

Doing-by-learning is a phrase that I apparently blurted out in a recent meeting, according to a colleague, and I asked her, “Did I say that?” and she said I did, and then I thought, “Of course I did. That’s what I believe.” And since she pointed out to me that I said that, I’ve been thinking about what I meant.

Here’s what I think I meant:

  • Doing-by-learning means that deep, meaningful, significant learning is our partner — it’s not an outcome, but it is; it’s not a prerequisite, but it is. In doing-by-learning, learning doesn’t come after we do, and isn’t in place in order to do. We do/learn, learn/do: together, hand-in-hand.
  • Doing-by-learning means we engage in reflective practice all. the. time.
  • Doing-by-learning means we get to approach our work, our lives, with inquiry and curiosity and freedom to f*8k up. It means we can experiment, try, fail, try again differently.

WAIT! FAIL? (Gulp!) (You mean failure might be learning too? No way!)

  • Doing-by-learning means we can innovate! It means we can change our lives, our circumstances, our ideas.
  • It means we can change our minds.

WAIT! Change our minds? Doesn’t that make us a “flip-flopper?” Huh? You mean it makes us learners? How ’bout that?

  • It means that when we have a problem to solve, we can frame questions through which we can approach that problem. How should we work together in this situation? What do we need to know to move forward through the problem? What are the options? How will we know it worked? What if it doesn’t work? What will we try next? What new problems might we create in solving this one? Wait – are these even problems???
  • Doing-by-learning means there isn’t likely one correct answer to find, one set of “best practices,” or one right process.

Yah yah yah – maybe this idea isn’t new or original (it isn’t). But imagine this: What might higher education look like if we claimed it as an institution that facilitated doing-by-learning instead of learning to do, or doing and then learning, or even (in the case of internships and other experiential programs) learning-by-doing? That’s what I am going to imagine. I’ll keep you posted with what I come up with.

Life Is A Legitimate Classroom

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Earl’s Library of Universal Knowledge. Thanks to roberthuffstutter on Flikr for making this image available.

OH. MY. GOSH. THIS. IS. GOOD! Read this: A Letter From a Hybrid Student

Then think about these two points that Teo makes:

1) “…it takes courage to assert that one’s life is a legitimate classroom.”

2) “Our lives are our source material; our histories, a text worthy of exploring in community.”

Then consider that Prior Learning Assessment allows this assertion to gain ground and to have higher educational value – that is, that students can articulate their life-as-classroom learning and earn college credit for it.

We could say: “Good for you, you know a lot! You are learned! You are intelligent! You are knowledgeable!” Which is all true.  But the message that often comes with that (mostly from employers) is also, “…but you don’t have a degree.”

PLA addresses this issue – it helps students claim and earn credit for their knowledge (some say it legitimizes knowledge that adult learners come to college with, but I don’t believe that this knowledge is illegitimate prior to a credit or two being associated with it).

Just watch these student videos – hear their perspectives, their voices. Did they get credit for their experience? NOPE – for their learning!

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Here is a recent article that speaks to PLA, and a quote from me about how it can have quality and integrity:

College Credit Without College

Sleazy prior learning practices still exist, says Melanie Booth, dean of learning and assessment at Marylhurst University.

“There are some PLA programs out there that look like credit laundering,” she says. For it to hold water, “you’ve got to translate your experience to academic knowledge.”

Translate your experience to academic knowledge. Because Teo said it:
Life is a legitimate classroom.

The Art Of Program Assessment

"This Is Art, Not Food!" Artist: Mac (4 years old)

The OIA Blog (a blog written by the Office of Institutional Assessment of SCAD) published a piece called Abstraction in Art and Assessment. These two key paragraphs struck a chord with me (I added the bold for emphasis):

It became clear to me that the more abstract an image is, the more I can focus on its essence.  I will not become distracted by the details of the content, but instead focus on the overall beauty of the  shapes and colors.  Taking the focus away from technical mastery, modern movements bring to focus the main reason why I choose to look at art in the first place –  the emotion attached to looking at something familiar in new light.  This same thought explains why I value program assessment.  Program assessment, when done right, should allow faculty to look at their student’s course work – the same course work they grade in class –  in a new light.

The relationship between modern art and more traditional forms of art is a great metaphor to explain the relationship between program assessment and course assessment.  Program assessment (or modern art) is a more abstract form of course assessment (or traditional art).  Program assessment should evoke the essential features of student work –  the technique, the process, and the level of creativity and maturity – in order to measure how well the program is meeting its standards.  On the other hand, course assessment details every element of an assignment (scale, color, spatial awareness, supporting documentation, installation, etc.) in order to provide student’s with specific feedback for improvement.  Neither type of assessment is better than the other, both are equally important 1) because they provide information for different audiences and 2) because they are dependent upon each other.    Just as Miro’s expression of form in The Dutch Interior is dependent on the content in Sohr’s The Lute Player, so are the overarching themes of program assessment inextricably linked to the multiple elements of a course assessment.

The idea of using program assessment to see student learning in a new light is intriguing, as are the analogies of modern art to program assessment and traditional art to course assessment. I especially appreciate the idea that assessment in the course is feedback intended to extend students’ learning and development.

My main take away from this post is really about the importance of aligning our intentions across the different levels of learning and assessment. Are our intentions for student learning in courses aligned to our intentions for student learning in our programs and then, across an institution? If the intentions — often stated as learning outcomes — are in alignment, then we can see the trees (assessment of student learning in courses), the forest (program assessment), and the entire ecosystem (institutional assessment). And as the OIA article points out, indeed, we may use different lights and different lenses to see and to appreciate learning at each level.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE

The Levels of Assessment white paper from AAC&U is a helpful overview of alignment of learning and assessment at various levels, and is a resource I often use to think about the relationships between individual student learning, learning in courses, learning across programs, and what the institution as a whole intends for student learning.

Fearing Assessment; Fearing Learning (And Fearing David Brooks)

O this learning, what a thing it is! ~Grumio in Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

Twice this past month I’ve heard the word “fear” used by faculty when referring to their experience of assessing student learning in their courses. One person described it as fear of students disagreeing with their grade or feedback, or generally unhappy with the judgment the instructor made about their work and requesting explanation and justification (much of which could be alleviated, I thought, if the instructor made the criteria transparent to students, or even better, if the criteria were collectively developed with students, but I digress…).

Thanks to Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha on Flickr for making this photo available for use.

The other person described her fear that she lacks the ability to discern quality and to really be able to tell what a student has learned. She described her lack of confidence in using a writing rubric to “judge” what about a student’s writing, as exemplified in a single assignment, is exceptional and what is developing (and every shade of grey in between). I appreciated her honesty with this challenge; I’ve certainly faced it as well (though in my case, “fear” was not a word I used to describe what I experienced as a “bleepin’ assessment conundrum!”). Nonetheless, her description reminded me of something from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”

So, too, is learning.

I am pretty certain that learners fear assessment as well, which is truly unfortunate and totally not necessary, and in the end, adversely affects our ability to learn. When faculty work from a “gotcha” perspective, of course assessment is something to fear! I remember a Shakespeare course I took in college that made me have night terrors; I couldn’t sleep that term because that class and that prof were seriously scary. Our final grade consisted of our scores on 5 tests: a test after each unit (comedy, drama, history, and what was the other??? – poetry, I guess), and the big ugly final exam, 3 hours of closed book / closed notes mental torture. These tests were tricky because they were designed as “gotcha” tests (including the essay part of the tests, for which we could use only one side of a single piece of unlined white 8.5 x 11″ paper to address the topic, for no clear reason other than the prof didn’t want to read more than what could fit in this designated space). It was always obvious from the smirk on his face and comments under his moldy breath that the curmudgeonly old prof enjoyed this process. These tests didn’t in any way advance or enhance my learning (I memorized a lot of Shakespeare that term but I didn’t learn any of it except for a few random quotes I can pull out of my head for cocktail parties or blog posts); they didn’t help me appreciate Shakespeare in new ways, or connect important themes or ideas to topics I was interested in. They freaked me out! Why was that necessary?

And now there is something else to fear: David Brooks, writing this op-ed piece in The New York Times, has called for value-added assessments.

Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing . . . There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. . . This is the beginning of college reform.

To which I reply: ARE YOU SERIOUS? How will THIS advance learning on the part of students, and on the part of faculty and institutions? Punish schools that don’t. Really? Punishment creates fear; punishment creates distrust. And fear and distrust do not promote learning — for students or any of us! I don’t disagree that we need to know how we’re doing … we do! We really, really do! But I absolutely believe that this approach is completely antithetical to actually promoting learning (note that I didn’t say “producing” learning, the term Brooks used, as if learning were something that gets assembled on a conveyor belt). This approach will foster fear; fear inhibits learning. Period.

Colleges (and faculty) have to remove fear first — this should be the beginning of college reform. I think it was Shakespeare who once wrote:

Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.