Prior learning assessment for credit at the University of Central Missouri : a program evaluation
Institutions of higher learning have focused recruiting, retention, and persistence efforts on the "traditional" student. In doing so, the retention and persistence rates of the highest growing population in higher education (the nontraditional student) is even lower than traditional students. Tinto (2012) described the relationship between the student and the institution as a moral contract in which the institution is obligated to provide an environment for success, particularly in the classroom so those students who are willing can achieve their goals. Unfortunately, the lack of specific policy or recognition of adult learning in higher education has resulted in the breaking of this contract for many adult students. This is validated through their decision not to return. Knowles' (1973) adult learning theory addressed the differences between traditional and nontraditional students. His focus was on how to enhance the learning environment for adult learners. One of the key aspects of his theory was the importance of the experiences the nontraditional or adult learner brings with them to the classroom. One way to improve adult student retention is through the recognition of their life/work experiences. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) for credit consideration provides this opportunity. The focus of this research was to determine the effectiveness of the University of Central Missouri's PLA program. To accomplish this task, Patton's (2008) utilization focused evaluation method was selected. The intended purpose of this evaluation was "formative improvement and learning" (p. 139). To accomplish this task, the participant's perceptions and understandings of the policies and practices were essential, making a qualitative design the preferred approach. Four research questions were developed in coordination with the key stakeholder: 1) What do faculty assessors perceive as the barriers to accepting credit for prior learning; 2) What type of process do faculty assessors use to determine credit or non-credit for prior learning; 3) How visible is UCM's PLA program to faculty, administrators, and staff; and, 4) How important do administrators and faculty assessors perceive PLA to be in retention and persistence efforts of nontraditional students? For this program assessment, 330 faculty were contacted through survey, with 67 respondents. Eleven academic advisors participated in two focus groups, and 19 interviews were held with department chairs and staff directly involved in the prior learning assessment process. Through multiple participant data collection methods, several themes emerged: 1) understanding prior learning; 2) initiation of the PLA process; 3) determining credit approval/disapproval; 4) impact on student success; 5) program barriers; and 6) the future of PLA. These themes highlight key aspects of the PLA program and addressed the research questions for the program evaluation. The following recommendations for program improvement were presented to the key stakeholder for consideration: 1) A purposeful information campaign providing university policy and procedures, as well as, the types of prior learning are necessary for faculty assessors; 2) Improve the visibility of the PLA on the university webpage; 3) Recommend a committee be established to address faculty, staff, and administrators to address policy and procedures for a more systematic approval process; 4) Recognize the impact PLA has on student success and the cost savings associated with PLA to the student; and 5) Evaluate the amount of special credit is being awarded each academic year. The purpose of this qualitative utilization focused evaluation was to determine the understanding, perceptions, and experiences with prior learning assessment at UCM. This was accomplished through data collection and analysis with an opportunity for the key stakeholder to improve the program based on the suggested recommendations.
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