So! Much! More! Than Credit

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


Here, and


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.

Compliance Or Learning: What’s Accreditation For?

It must be accreditation season. This spring I served on two regional accreditation teams (one for WASC, one for NWCCU) as a peer reviewer. Wait – did you say peer reviewer???


Hear that students of mine? Peer Review! Yep – just like we do in our class, this process asks us reviewers to use criteria (“standards”) to assess how well we think an institution is doing based on their self-assessment report (called a “self-study”), interviews with lots and lots of people (including students), and direct evidence (such as meeting minutes, syllabi, catalogs, etc.) And you all thought I came up with peer review as a way to lighten my paper-reading load. NOPE – it’s about learning with and from others.


First, let me share with you a few fun facts about serving on an accreditation team. For one thing, you get to travel to beautiful and exotic places. For my first visit, this was my office:

For the second, this:

(Ok, ok. I took those pictures while on accreditation visits, but I really didn’t get to hang out and work right there, in the midst of that beauty. Well, except for the top one. I really did write half the report looking at that view. But of course, that’s not always the case. To be fair, I’ve heard colleagues talk about writing accreditation reports from truck stops and Denny’s restaurants.)

Serving on a peer review team is a fabulous learning experience. I learned not only from the institutions I visited, but also from my teammates. I have new ideas and strategies to bring back to my institution, and a new set of colleagues in my network. When serving on a team, you get to know other folks from other institutions who are serving with you, and because you may be tackling tough problems together in a condensed period of time (often working together into the wee hours of the night), you tend to get to know each other pretty well. In both cases this spring, I developed neat collaborative relationships with the team members, and many of us still keep in touch.

The peer review part of accreditation can present learning opportunities for an institution’s students too. A student at one institution covered the accreditation visit by writing two stories for her campus newspaper to help her fellow students know what was happening. The first was a “hey, they’re coming” story, and the second was a “hey, I had lunch with them” story. Read them here:

University makes progress with accreditation renewal

Food for thought: Accreditation luncheon

Finally, if institutions are amenable to constructive feedback (as we all should be) and if they see the process as one of genuine self-reflection and assessment in order to keep doing what works and change what doesn’t, they learn and improve too. To be clear: the reports are not easy to write or put together; looking in the mirror and calling attention to your flaws isn’t exactly a party (though you also get to call attention to your beauty marks, and identifying those can be rewarding). My own institution is a great example of the learning and improvements that can come from the process.  We have made huge improvements in how we educate and serve students since our last accreditation visit as a result of our self-assessment and feedback from peers about our practices. And it’s all good because it’s all learning.

All in all, accreditation sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s tangled into real and legitimate issues of compliance, accountability, and in some cases fear. A recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes a compelling point for why faculty should get involved accordingly:

But it’s time for college and university faculty to start paying attention to this seemingly dry issue. Further, it’s time they joined the effort by administrators and accreditors to resist the government’s increasing intrusion into accreditation. That intrusion endangers both academic freedom and the unique American system of separation of the academy from the state.

Ultimately, if we really want to improve higher education, and if we want opportunities for learning and developing networks with others, participating in a regional accreditation process can be a great way to do so. If anything, through our participation and engagement, we can help accreditation be focused on learning and improvement for everyone, including regional accrediting agencies themselves.

Random Learning – The Empathic Civilization

This is actually my random learning, not my kid’s.  My colleagues and I, in our monthly “assessment geek out,” accidentally stumbled across this video today. I am still processing it all, but I am interested in how we embody and enact empathy, why, and under what conditions. I try to be an empathic person, to consider and try to experience the perspectives of others. But, especially in my work with adult learners (though really in everything I do, including parenting my 4-year old, supporting my colleagues, and being with friends), I always wonder where the line is between being empathic and being too empathic (if there is such a thing). When does an empathic approach get in the way of what might be best for my students or my kid?

So – my random learning: The Empathic Civilization, by RSA Animate.

Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.

I also am left wondering:  can we really evolve as a civilization – a species – to be more empathic? Seemingly so (according to Rifkin). But ARE we doing so? Sometimes, on days when the glass is half-empty and the national and international news continually presents stories of violence, incivility, intolerance, prejudice, and environmental damage, I am not so sure we are evolving to be more empathic . . .  But it seems good to know that we can.

Mr. Messy Meets Higher Education

Meet Mr. Messy, from a book of the same title:

Mr. Messy is a friend of my kid Mac, who for some reason is intrigued by Mr. Messy. We haven’t even read the book (so in fact I don’t know what it’s about), but we have seen his picture and sometimes it looks to Mac like Mr. Messy is:

a) wrapped up in pink silly putty, or

b) covered in strawberry jam, or

c) “like a flower with arms and feet!”

All of these scenarios might sound pretty neat if you are 3 — eh, hem, I mean 3 and 1/2 — years old.

For us grown-ups, though, messy may not be as fun. Messy means things are not simple, clean, or clear. Messy means being able to live in ambiguity (per my mother’s motto: “We’ll see…”). Messy means that emotions can be involved, that learning is tough, that life is sometimes challenging, that the world can be a difficult place. And as such, messy also provides opportunities. Learning to deal with messy means we get to problem-solve, think differently, find a way, and figure out how to navigate the rough and tumble seas, and then celebrate arrival to dry land and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Without messy, we’d likely be bored. And without messy we probably wouldn’t learn much.

To celebrate messy, let me share another goodie from The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal,by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc:

If higher education cannot deal with the messiness of real life, educated people will not be prepared to use their knowledge amid the complexities and the cruelties that constantly threaten to undo civilization. And they clearly will not know how to use their knowledge with wisdom, compassion, and love. . . If higher education does not help people learn how and why to take the risks of love, its moral contributions to the world will fall short of its potential. (pgs. 38-39)

I like the idea of addressing messy with love because love represents embracing something fully and being devoted and caring. Dean Dad recently suggested that we should “tolerate” ambiguity by reframing it, and he has a great point in asking us to consider this:

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

Um, that’s easy: Possibility, learning experience, and growing pains, please!

Ultimately, for us folks who work and learn in higher education (hopefully there’s overlap there, right?), I think that love — in the way my kid seems to love Mr. Messy — is likely more sustainable and impactful than tolerance. To me, tolerance means I put up with something that might bother me (e.g., I tolerate my husband’s inherent need to reload the dishwasher after I’ve loaded it); love, though, means we can embrace the messy and, as Dean Dad proposes, work to make a difference.

My kid loves Mr. Messy.

And I am trying to, too. Even when he’s covered in strawberry jam (or in this case, nutella).

Meet Mr. Messy: Loving ambiguity one waffle at a time.

The Bottom Line

I’m happily working my way through the reading assignments for the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy that I am participating in (and finding all sorts of goodies to share with my colleagues), and this paragraph from Mary J. Allen’s book Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education (2004) reminded me why I care so much about assessment — because it’s (once again) about informing teaching and learning:

Earlier teaching models, primarily based on delivering content through textbooks and lecturing, assumed that students learn through listening, reading, and independent work. Typical grading practices, based on grading on a curve, frequently put students into competition with each other, discouraging student collaboration. More recent conceptions of learning stress that students construct knowledge by integrating new learning into what they already know. Learning is viewed as a cognitive and social process in which students construct meaning through reflection and through their interactions with faculty, fellow students, and others. This approach involves expanded use of active learning pedagogies, such as collaborative and cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and community service learning. Our ability to meet the educational needs of our diverse student body depends on developing an expanded repertoire of pedagogical strategies with demonstrated effectiveness, and assessment helps us identify these strategies. (p. 3)

And then (as if that wasn’t enough of a Rah! Rah! for educators), Allen identifies the bottom line:

The bottom line for assessment is student learning (p. 6) . . . . Just as the bottom line in business is the generation of profit, the bottom line in higher education is the generation of learning. (p.19)

Generating learning. That’s a really great bottom line.