PLA and CBE: Building a Cohesive Strategy

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The relationship between Prior Learning Assessment and Competency-Based Education is often confusing. Are they the same thing? Should institutions develop one or the other? Is one better? Learn from Sinclair Community College how PLA and CBE intertwine in and out of the classroom, in a cohesive institutional strategy to serve all learners.


Since starting at Sinclair in 2013, I have been lucky enough to help build each of our CBE programs from the ground up, wearing multiple hats over the years. My initial role at the college was to aid in the development of a comprehensive student support model for CBE students, and since then, I have been aiding in the launch of all new CBE programs, serving in roles such as CBE Academic Coach, Program Coordinator, and most recently, Instructional Designer for programs in IT, manufacturing, business, and more. Through these roles I've gained a comprehensive understanding and a unique perspective on the strategy, development, and delivery process for CBE programs across multiple disciplines.
Jennifer Davis, Instructional Designer at Sinclair College, has over 23 years of experience in education with university, community college and adult education providers. She holds a Bachelor's in History from the University of Dayton and a Master's in Instructional Design from WGU. Jennifer also serves as the CBE lead Instructional Designer and teaches the First Year Experience course in the CBE modality. She holds several Quality Matters certifications including Master Reviewer, Face-to-Face APPQMR Facilitator, Course Review Manager, and QM Coordinator. She has presented at state and national conferences on such topics as course design, literacy, professional development, and technology. Additionally, she develops faculty trainings on CBE, QM, and LMS usage/tools.

Extended Abstract

Competency-based education is commonly defined as a modality that transitions away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, and a way for students to progress based on mastery of content, regardless of time, or pace of learning.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, CBE provides flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provides students with personalized learning opportunities.  Based on this definition, Sinclair took an innovative approach to demonstrating mastery, which utilizes prior learning assessment (PLA) inside, and outside of the credit-based CBE classroom. 

Before CBE at Sinclair, students were offered two pathways to earning credit:  enroll in, and pay for a course that lasts the full duration of the semester that conforms to the pace of the majority, or use a more cost-effective, but higher risk PLA option such as a proficiency exam to “test out” of the course in its entirety.  This all or none approach to addressing prior learning was underserving the majority of non-traditional learners, who should have been the most likely to utilize proficiency exams.  These are learners who have experience in their field of study, and who desire to expedite their credential completion by earning credit for prior learning.  However, these non-traditional learners continued to shy away from proficiency exams, expressing fear that they wouldn’t pass, because although they were familiar with much of the content, they weren’t confident enough in their competency to risk a failed attempt at a proficiency or challenge exam.  Furthermore, their fears were justified by the high failure rates associated with most proficiency exams. 

The introduction of Unit-based CBE courses at Sinclair hoped to provide an intermediate option for learners with some prior experience in their subject area, but who were not quite proficient enough for an all-or-nothing exam.  Unit-based CBE courses offer learners an option to be assessed at the topic level, rather than at the course level, mitigating the risk of failure, and providing an opportunity to demonstrate mastery in chunks, ultimately allowing for acceleration through familiar topics, and concentrated focus on unfamiliar material.

Attendees in this session will learn how Sinclair developed Unit-based CBE courses utilizing topic pre-assessments and post-assessments, providing a completely individualized pathway to mastering course content.  Reflection and Q&A will be guided by a Sinclair developed, PLA Strategies handout, focusing on how institutions, departments, instructional designers, faculty, and others, can implement innovative approaches to prior learning assessment in any discipline.