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Assessment of learning

This section offers a commentary on the type of assessment needed to support life-long learning and a summary of the process of APL together with some observations as to the usefulness of the concept.
In order to support life-long learning assessment needs to engage with:

the importance of learning with others
the importance of learning from others
supporting the learning of others
inculcating a disposition to learn and to take learning opportunities
problem formulation
sharing easier / more effective ways to work or learn
reflection upon how we learn
helping people to become more effective at judging their own learning
value of formative feedback upon how to improve learning.
However, are there limits to how much a teacher can achieve in helping students develop flexibility in large classes? In some ways some of these tasks are easier to promote through coaching and mentoring and more individualised feedback and support. There may also be cases where people have learned a great deal, for example during a work placement or through their early experience of work, yet find it difficult to articulate what they have learned.

These ideas have a long history, harking back to John Dewey and beyond: importance of 'learning as process'. This type of approach to learning and assessment is not a panacea and it may not be successful in all circumstances. However, some approaches like project-based learning and portfolio development may offer opportunities for engagement, precisely because in certain circumstances they may enable a learner to 'travel' across work, education and personal domains. They may lead to engagement across different aspects of an individual's identity.

Solomon (2003) argues that approaches like project-based learning and portfolio development are "both engaged in the production of knowledge that does not sit neatly into a single disciplinary category and consequently both engage the learner in a process of learning, that works across discourse boundaries."

Those who have missed out on formal educational qualifications may need to have their learning from a range of work and personal contexts accredited. How can guidance help with this process?

An Overview

What is Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL)?
What are the stages in the APL process?
What type of evidence is required?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of APL?
What is APL?

APL refers to the notion that people learn most effectively by 'doing'. This is not a new concept. For example, Lewin (1951), Kolb (1984), and Schon (1987) all stressed the importance and value of experiential learning to human growth and development. APL has developed these ideas by establishing the principle that the learning arising from experience should be formally recognised, or credited. There are a number of different abbreviations currently in usage, all describing aspects of the same process. The most common ones are:

APL (Accreditation of Prior Learning);
APEL (Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning);
APA (Accreditation of Prior Achievement);
RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning);
PLA (Prior Learning Assessment); and
APEAL (Accreditation of Prior Experience Achievements and Learning).
This variety of terms can be confusing, but they all relate to the idea that an individual's knowledge and skills can be formally credited, irrespective of where or how they were obtained.

Although the practice of APL is relatively new in the UK, Simosko (1992: p13) discusses evidence for various forms of accreditation of prior learning being used as long ago as fifth-century China, and in Europe during the Middle Ages (within the Guild system). It was given a boost in the UK by the development of national vocational qualifications (NVQs). Indeed, as Hodkinson (1995) points out, much of the early development work relating to APEL in the UK was undertaken for or by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (now Qualification and Curriculum Authority – QCA).

Stages in the APL process

Accounts of the different stages in the process of APL vary slightly, but it is possible to identify four 'key' stages:

In the first stage the individual must decide what qualification she or he wishes to claim credit for and which recognised body will accredit the learning. Not all education and training organisations offer APL and even within one organisation, like a university or college, APL may be offered for only a limited number of its courses.

In the second stage the individual identifies the particular learning outcomes, or competencies she or he wishes to present for assessment. There is a difference between the identification of prior learning (stage 2) and organising it into forms appropriate for assessment (stage 3). The identification of prior learning comes through systematic reflection on experience. The individual then reviews their experiences, selects those where something was learned and writes a clear statement about what was actually learned. In addition to confirming competence, this process of 'mapping' may also reveal lack of competence. The process of APL does not in itself assist the individual in addressing any lack of competence, and individuals are left to organise any training required.

The third stage in the APL process is the collection and collation of evidence to support the statements of what was learned. Having identified the competencies for which credit is to be claimed, evidence must be gathered, and structured in a form suitable for assessment - usually in a 'portfolio'. A portfolio in this context is a portable collection of evidence usually presented in some form of bound folder. It is the portfolio which is submitted for assessment, and which forms the basis for the award of the qualification. The accrediting body may provide written guidelines and offer support for an individual assembling their 'portfolio'. Constructing a portfolio will take time (often months, sometimes years) to complete.

The fourth stage comprises the presentation of portfolio for assessment. The awarding body decides whether the evidence provided in the portfolio is sufficient to merit the award of the qualification sought.

Nature of Evidence

Two types of evidence can be used in the APL process - direct and indirect:

Direct evidence is evidence produced by the candidate. Examples may include client case notes, an interview record, a personal log of a guidance session or an evaluative commentary on the candidate's own practice of guidance. Within higher education, there is an emphasis on need for students submitting evidence to demonstrate theoretical underpinning at the academic level appropriate for the qualification sought. Within a guidance context, for example, at post graduate level, a student submitting a portfolio of evidence in support of their claim for competence in interviewing would be expected to demonstrate their knowledge and critical appreciation of a range of theories underpinning practice, as well as their competence with skills, structure and strategies needed for interviewing.
Indirect evidence is evidence produced by someone else, but relating to some aspect of the competence of the candidate. Examples may include feedback from some form of supervision with 'witness testimony' from a supervisor, reports and policy statement.
Generally, direct evidence is considered stronger than indirect evidence in the assessment process, but both are useful in developing portfolios. It is likely that in constructing portfolios, candidates will need to use a combination of both to support their claims to credit.

Advantages and disadvantages of APL

APL can benefit both individual and organisation:

It provides formal, external recognition for an individual's accomplishments which can be important for self esteem and for the credibility of the employing organisation.
Time may be saved - it can be quicker to gain a qualification using APL, though this is not always the case.
On a formal course of study individuals are sometimes required to cover ground with which they are already familiar. This can be avoided.
The process can itself can be beneficial to the individual, by helping to develop a reflective approach to practice. This has been identified as the most important benefit of APEL in higher education.
It can help with widening access to education and training.
There are, however, also disadvantages:

Since it is relatively new, the process of APL is generally unfamiliar and can be difficult to grasp. For those used to the more traditional methods of assessment, adjusting to the requirement to identify and articulate 'learning outcomes' for which credit is to be claimed, then selecting the evidence and method of presentation to support a claim for learning can prove challenging.
It is not only the individuals wishing to claim credit who are likely to be unfamiliar with the process. Educators, trainers and work-based supervisors supporting and assessing those wishing to claim credit may lack experience of APL and may have to 'learn alongside' their candidates. This can, of course, result in a positive experience for all concerned - but may not.
Training support has been identified as critical for APL. The process is likely to require time, personal effort and perseverance.
By its very nature, APL requires a high level of organisational skill and self-direction on the part of those claiming credit. If such skills and qualities are absent, the individual may flounder.
There is also invariably a financial cost which will vary according to the accrediting body and the type of qualification sought.
Lastly, the process can clearly discriminate against people who have experienced unemployment or who have been away from employment for long periods.
Various misconceptions have also grown up around APL. Often it is assumed that it is quick, cheap and easy. In practice, it is rarely any of these things.


Hodkinson, P. (1995) 'An Overview of NVQ Issues', paper presented at the Conference Reviewing NVQs: The Way Forward', Further Education Research Association, University of Warwick, 19th May 1995.
Kolb, D. (1984) 'Experiential Learning', Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs.
Schon, D. (1987) "Educating the Reflective Practitioner", Jossey Bass: San Francisco.
Simosko, S. (1991) "APL: A Practical Guide for Professionals", Kogan Page: London.
Simosko, S. (1992) "Get Qualification for What you Know and Can Do", Kogan Page: London.
Solomon, N. (2003) ‘Identity work and pedagogy’, SKOPE seminar on ‘Vocational learning for the 21st Century; international perspectives’, Oxford, July 2003.

Observations on APL

Comment 1: Useful resource for busy practitioners?

This type of steer looks useful for busy practitioners - and could be customised locally with details of APL providers .

Comment 2: Is APL just part of the accrediation treadmill?

Although the rhetoric around lifelong learning suggests it is an all-embracing concept that will be a panacea for all personal and societal ills, the reality might be seen as a push towards ever greater accreditation . This might mean, cynically just encouraging people to gain recognition for skills they already have, rather than a more expansive interpretation that encourages the take up of new practical or thinking skills.

What is the importance (or relevance) of accreditation of learning?

Is some accreditation a cynical exercise in formalising recognition of skills people already have (a criticism that could be levied at some NVQs, the European Driving Licence or even low level Supervisory Management courses amongst others)

Is accreditation actually a disincentive for some people in terms of taking up learning?

To what extent is accreditation meaningful – or is the credentialist treadmill so strong that the exchange value of qualifications in the labour market is being eroded?

Is lifelong learning only about engagement in the labour market, and given that so much learning occurs in the workplace, how does this impact on those effectively disenfranchised if they are not active in the labour market?

Comment 3: Could accreditation be a disincentive to learning?

Is accreditation a disincentive for some? I think this is often the case. As an educationalist in higher education, some years ago I spent about 12 years trying to help and support mature students structure and develop their portfolios for accreditation. Often the procedures required for accreditation by educational institutions are so onerous and complex (in the name of quality) that would-be candidates give up - feeling that it is easier to take the accredited course of learning. Finance is also an issue. Accreditation processes are lengthy (and therefore costly) for both candidates and awarding institutions. At the moment, I'm not aware that financial support is available for this. This might make the difference.