Prior Learning and STEM: Ingredients for Student Success

Kent Seaver
Innovation Showcase

Having spent the last 16 years working in metropolitan community colleges, I have had the opportunity to see all types of students: new-to-college eighteen year olds, fifteen year old non-driving dual credit students, and returning students who would rather not divulge their ages. All bring with them the sum of their life experiences. But one group that brings a set of experiences and skills like no other is returning student veterans. Because of the nature of the service, these men and women are arriving on our college campuses with more technical knowledge than most generations of students that came before them. This knowledge can be measured by us in academia via Prior Learning Assessments, or PLAs.

Trish Paterson, Executive Director for College Access Initiatives for the University System of Georgia, states that

Prior learning isn't just giving students credit for life experience. Colleges that choose to offer the credit measure what students know, review how that corresponds with courses students are required to take, and determine whether their knowledge merits college credit. We are honoring what a student knows even if we are not the reason why they know it. (qtd. in Diamond, 2012)

PLAs can be broken down into four basic types, with the first being evaluation of previous coursework. Often, this coursework comes from the corporate or military world. The American Council on Education (ACE) has reviewed and provided academic credit recommendations for more than 35,000 courses, examinations, and certifications offered by employers, federal agencies, professional associations, apprenticeship programs, online education providers, and other organizations. Their National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training contains ACE credit recommendations for formal courses or examinations offered by various organizations, from businesses and unions to the government and military (American Council on Education, 2014). ACE's College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) connects workplace learning with colleges and universities by helping adults gain access to academic credit for formal courses and examinations taken outside the traditional classroom.

Since 1945, ACE's Military Evaluations program has evaluated formal military training in terms of academic credit, allowing thousands of soldiers and veterans to earn credit for college-level learning acquired in the military. The results of these evaluations, along with learning outcomes, course descriptions, and recommendations for the type and amount of credit that may be awarded, are gathered from the veteran's Joint Services Transcript (JST) (United States Army, 2014). A military transcript, the JST lists military coursework and occupations in terms of equivalent college credits as evaluated by ACE. The primary purpose of the JST is to assist soldiers in obtaining college credit for their military experience (American Council on Education, 2014).

Portfolios, or written narratives describing a particular training, provide another method for assessing prior learning at the college level. A portfolio is not a traditional college paper, nor is it solely a listing of job experiences. It is a thoughtful, well crafted, and focused document designed to convince a faculty evaluator that a student has gained knowledge, abilities, and skills outside the classroom that are, at a minimum, equivalent to the knowledge gained by students who have completed college-level coursework. The student must demonstrate 70 percent mastery to receive credit and is graded on a credit/no credit basis, which does not affect the student's grade point average. To protect the academic integrity of the awarding of college credit for portfolios, the required supporting documentation for submission to earn equivalent college credit is extremely high, usually containing five or more pieces of documentation detailing experience (Zalek, 2013).

The next method of prior learning used at the collegiate level is the Course Challenge Exam, sometimes called the departmental exam. It is designed for the individual who may already know the material covered in an introductory level course offered at a college or university. The Course Challenge Exam provides an alternative to traditional classroom course work and is written by course instructors or academic departments, which directly relates the tested material to the course being challenged. Such exams are used to determine student competency in a specific course of study. Each department determines the specific credit award and the acceptable passing grade, which must be C or above.

Another form of prior learning assessment, the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST), offer students a cost-effective, time-saving way to use knowledge acquired outside of the classroom--perhaps from reading, on-the-job training, or independent study--to accomplish their educational goals. The DSST  audience has changed over the years, but since 2006, DSST exams have been available to anyone seeking college credit outside the traditional classroom, including college students, adult learners, high school students, and military personnel. Over 2,000 colleges and universities recognize the DSST program and award college credit for passing scores. Colleges, universities, and corporations throughout the United States and in some other countries administer tests year-round.

The test fee to take a DSST is as low as $80 at many institutions, and administering schools may charge a modest test administration fee according to their school policy. Several upper- and lower-level courses are available in a variety of subjects, from social sciences and history to business. Because the cost of classes per credit hour can reach into the hundreds of dollars, DSST exams offer a steep cost savings compared with a typical $700-750 three-credit class. DSST exams can not only save students money, but can also accelerate degree completion. The American Council on Education's CREDIT has evaluated and recommended college credit for all 30+ DSST exams (Prometric, 2014).

The College-Level Exam Program (CLEP) is a well-known provider Of prior learning assessment. According to the College Board's CLEP website (2014), over 1,700 college test centers administer CLEP exams, which are accepted at roughly 2,900 colleges and universities. Approximately 176,000 CLEP exams were administered in the 2013-2014 academic year, with well over seven million exams taken by students since the inception of CLEP exams in 1967. This credit-by-examination program serves a diverse group of students, including adults, nontraditional learners, and military service members; of the 176,000 exams taken in the 2013-2014 academic year, approximately 60,000 were taken by military service members. Not only does the program serve a broad-based cohort, but it also validates knowledge learned through independent study, on-the-job training, or experiential learning, and it translates that learning into college credit that is commonly recognized. The 33 CLEP exams are organized into five general categories: history and social sciences, business, composition and literature, science and mathematics, and foreign languages. Much like the DSST, the cost of the exam (also $80), when compared to credit hours, books, and fees, make CLEP a very economically friendly alternative to unnecessary classes.

Amy Sherman, Associate Vice President for Policy and Strategic Alliances at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), sums up what others in the education field view as the value of prior learning. She states,

Many people come to higher education with learning that has taken place outside of the traditional higher education structure. Think of all the learning that takes place at employer training facilities, in jobs, in the military, through a lifetime of self-study or volunteer work. Some of that experiential learning is equivalent to what takes place in the classroom, and the learning outcomes are measurable. That's important to remember: this is not simply giving credit for experience, but for the learning outcome. (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2012)

At Montclair State University in New Jersey, this measuring of outcomes as they relate to the STEM classroom has been set in motion. Montclair has created a Checklist for Inclusive Teaching in STEM Disciplines that begins with a system titled Accurate Problem Definition. It functions as an inclusive teaching framework for science, technology, engineering, and math. Simply put, it clearly identifies goals, rationales, starting conditions, appropriate design, and principles of implementation to achieve optimal learning outcomes (Reddick, Jacobson, Linse, & Yong, 2007). This process is, then, expanded at Montclair by the inclusion of Accurate Solution, a sort of part II in regard to the inclusive teaching model. Accurate Solution identifies problem-solving procedures as goals and creates exams that focus on recall of detailed facts. By establishing students' prior knowledge and skills coming into a course, Montclair's STEM curriculum has successfully been able to bridge any gap between recognized prior learning skills and classroom/curriculum needs.

CLEP Research and Student Success

While the Montclair model is certainly thought provoking, I wanted to see what outcomes would occur in regard to my own test takers at North Lake College (NLC). In the fall of 2011, 67 NLC students tested via CLEP and were placed into at least one of the following introductory STEM classes: college algebra, pre-calculus, calculus, chemistry, and biology.

  Retention Rate Fall 2011-Fall 2013 Average GPA After 2 Years
PLA/STEM Students 85% 3.23
Non-PLA Students 58% 2.78

After two years, the average GPA of the retained 57 PLA/STEM students was 3.23, while the overall GPA for the non-PLA/STEM students was 2.78. This improved grade point average applied to the students who took not only the introductory STEM courses, but also advanced STEM courses, thus demonstrating that PLA student success.

PLA, STEM, and the Workforce

We, in education, have read numerous articles detailing how the number of new scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities is significantly declining. The coinciding current shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. and flux of technically-trained servicemen departing the military offers an important opportunity for U.S. employers, including the Tennessee Valley Corridor's (TVC) former Non-Traditional Emerging Workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (NEW-STEM) Initiative.* TVC's website notes, "Due to their maturity, technical training, and hands-on experiences, these individuals separating from the military in the next five years provide an excellent near-term source of potential engineers for the country" (Tennessee Valley Corridor, 2013). Returning student veterans offer multiple benefits to federal agencies and private sector companies, including, but not limited to, access to experienced, skilled workers with active security clearances, and the opportunity to grow their pool of experienced engineers from a nontraditional population, thus increasing the overall number of scientists and engineers in the region. Finally, a contractual relationship and service agreement with participants who accept the terms of the NEW-STEM program can create a lasting, meaningful relationship between the veteran workforce and the TVC.

In today's climate of decreased funding, lower retention and graduation rates, and increased scrutiny from a government perspective, it is time we in higher education use all of the tools in our arsenal to create strong veteran student success in those increasingly valuable STEM fields, and allow that group to achieve the dream of a college education. Prior learning assessment is such a tool.

*According to the Tennessee Valley Corridor, Boeing now manages the NEW-STEM Program, and program information has been removed from the TVC website.


Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. (2012). Pathways to success: Integrating learning with life to increase national college completion. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

American Council on Education. (2014). Adult learners: Using your ACE credit recommendations. Retrieved from

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Diamond, L. (2012, July 9). Out of class learning equals college credit. Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Retrieved from

Prometric. (2014). About DSST. Retrieved from

Reddick, L. A., Jacobson, W., Linse, A., & Yong, D. (2007). An inclusive teaching framework for science, technology, engineering, and math. In M. Ouellett (Ed.), Teaching inclusively: Diversity
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The NEW-STEM Program. (2013, August 12). Retrieved from

United States Army. (2014). Military training evaluated for credits. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

Zalek, S. (2013, May 2). Achieving dreams: Results from a survey of students using LearningCounts portfolios to earn college credit. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.Retrieved from

Kent Seaver is Director of Learning Resources at North Lake College in Irving, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.