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Prior Learning Assessment in Nursing

An Accelerated Pathway to Degree Completion

Lee, Shirleatha; Dapremont, Jill

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Nursing Education Perspectives: May/June 2020 - Volume 41 - Issue 3 - p 180-182
doi: 10.1097/01.NEP.0000000000000501
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Many registered nurses returning to higher education to complete the baccalaureate degree are working adults. Although many nurses are motivated to return to school (Sarver, Cichra, & Kline, 2015) and seek ways to enrich their lives and advance their educational backgrounds, total withdrawal from the working world is not always possible. Students who choose not to return to BSN programs indicate primary barriers to be financial support and time constraints (Duffy et al., 2014; Sarver et al., 2015). Another crucial barrier is time to degree completion, which averaged 2.63 years (Sarver et al., 2015). On the other hand, many nurses who complete BSN programs attribute their success to flexible scheduling and receiving financial support (Duffy et al., 2014). Therefore, institutions of higher education must take innovative steps to provide flexible, affordable, and high quality RN-BSN completion programs to meet the needs of students seeking to obtain a BSN in a timely manner. One method of addressing this challenge is through prior learning assessments (PLAs).

PLAs are processes used to assess the individual’s learning and determine what knowledge the individual has achieved in order to grant college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education. Two common PLA approaches are credit-by-examination (CBE) and experiential learning credit (ELC) portfolios. CBE provides an opportunity for students to earn college credit for previously acquired knowledge. ELC portfolios allow students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge learned in the field or work setting through alignment with course outcomes. Although both methods effectively accelerate the student’s pathway to degree completion, PLA has not acquired widespread use in higher education (Rust & Ikard, 2016).

It is important that the nursing discipline investigate students’ perceived satisfaction and outcomes with the use of CBE and ELC portfolios as methods of assessment for RN-BSN completion programs. This pilot study addressed three research questions: 1) What percentage of nursing students perceive PLA as a flexible and affordable method of evaluating prior knowledge? 2) What percentage perceive PLA as an effective method of assessing knowledge acquired outside the educational setting? 3) What is the relationship of PLA use to nursing graduation rates? It is hypothesized that students who participate in PLA will have significantly higher graduation rates than peers who choose no PLA option.


All nursing students who completed the RN-BSN completion program within the last three years (2015–2017) at one baccalaureate nursing program were asked to complete a survey that examined their perceptions of affordability and flexibility of each PLA option available (CBE and ELC portfolios) and their perceptions of the effectiveness of PLA at measuring prior knowledge. This time period was selected since PLA options using electronic methods of evaluation became available to students during this time. Nineteen students completed the survey. In addition, a retrospective sample of all students who enrolled in the RN-BSN program in the previous three years (N = 145) was analyzed to examine graduation rates for students who utilized PLA in comparison to students who chose no PLA option. Currently enrolled students (n = 81) were excluded, yielding a sample of 64 for this analysis.


A process of validating previous knowledge through CBE for RN-BSN students was developed by the college. Students were awarded college-level credit for prior learning by passing a national standardized achievement exam at the national proficiency benchmark. CBE could be earned for three RN-BSN courses: Health Assessment (two credit hours) and Lab (one credit hour), Pathophysiology (three credit hours), and Pharmacology (three credit hours).

The ELC portfolio was composed of seven self-paced modular assignments that provided an opportunity to demonstrate experiential knowledge through practical proficiencies. The modules included: 1) letter of intent, 2) target statement, 3) learning outcomes, 4) critical learning event narratives, 5) reflective essay, 6) timeline of key learning events, and 7) supportive documentation of experiences. In the Transitions into Nursing Practice course (eight credit hours), students could earn up to four credit hours based on prior learning experiences. ELC portfolios were graded using a faculty-developed rubric based on Kolb’s experiential learning theory, which involves the student having a concrete experience, reflecting on the experience, conceptualizing and analyzing the experience, and testing the hypothesis in future situations (McLeod, 2017).

The survey consisted of 10 questions related to perceived satisfaction with the awarding of academic credit using PLA and 6 demographic questions with an open section for additional comments. A 5-point Likert scale (5 = strongly agree, 1 = strongly disagree and not applicable) was used to rate the following:

  1. CBE adequately assessed my prior knowledge.
  2. Obtaining college credit through CBE required less than eight hours of studying and preparation.
  3. The cost savings associated with CBE influenced my decision to return to complete the BSN degree.
  4. The ability to utilize CBE enhanced overall program satisfaction.
  5. CBE increased the flexibility of the degree program.
  6. The ELC portfolio adequately assessed my prior knowledge.
  7. Obtaining college credit through the ELC portfolio required less than two weeks of preparation.
  8. The cost savings associated with the ELC portfolio influenced my decision to return to complete the BSN degree.
  9. The ability to utilize the ELC portfolio process enhanced overall program satisfaction.
  10. The ELC portfolio increased the flexibility of the degree program.

Content validity was assessed by two nurse faculty prior to administration. Results are being used to fully establish validity and reliability of the survey instrument. Subjects were assigned a unique identifier, and institutional review board approval was obtained.

SPSS v. 24.0 was utilized for statistical analysis with a significance level of .05. Frequency distributions were obtained for the descriptive study; chi-square tests of independence were used to compare students who participated in PLA (CBE or ELC) and those who did not participate and graduated or did not graduate over the last three years.


Survey Results

Survey participants’ (n = 19) ages ranged from 22 to 54 years (M = 37.7); 89.5 percent were female. Three respondents (15.7 percent) selected CBE only; six (31.5 percent) selected ELC only; eight (42.1 percent) selected and evaluated both CBE and ELC options; two (10.5 percent) indicated they had not utilized either option. Results from the survey indicated 57.8 percent (11 participants) used CBE; 73.6 percent (14 participants) participated in the ELC portfolio.


Among those who participated in CBE, 80 percent strongly agreed/agreed that CBE adequately assessed their prior knowledge; 88.9 percent strongly agreed the associated cost savings influenced their decision to return to complete the BSN degree. Eighty percent strongly agreed/agreed the ability to utilize CBE increased the flexibility of the degree program and enhanced their overall program satisfaction; 60 percent indicated obtaining credit through CBE required less than eight hours of study and preparation.


Results indicated that 53.7 percent strongly agreed/agreed the ELC portfolio adequately assessed their prior knowledge, but only 21.4 percent indicated obtaining credit required less than two weeks of preparation. Fifty percent strongly agreed/agreed the associated cost savings influenced their decision to complete the BSN degree; 42.7 percent indicated the ability to utilize ELC enhanced overall program satisfaction, and 53.8 percent strongly agreed/agreed the portfolio increased flexibility of the degree program. Two themes emerged from additional comments: 1) the ELC portfolio was time consuming but worth it in the end; 2) I would recommend PLA options to all.

Graduation Rates and PLA Analysis

Additional analysis (n = 64) revealed 45.3 percent (n = 29) completed CBE, and 54.6 percent (n = 35) did not complete any of the CBE options; 35.9 percent (n = 23) completed and 64 percent (n = 41) did not complete the portfolio option. A significant difference was identified between students who utilized at least one CBE option and students who did not take any CBE option in relation to graduation status (χ2 = 16.155, p = .000). Nearly all (n = 27/29, 93.1 percent) of those who took CBE completed the degree program through graduation; 45 percent (n = 16/35) who did not take CBE completed the degree program.

Most students did not use the ELC portfolio (64.1 percent); 23 completed the portfolio option. There was a significant difference between those who used the portfolio option and those who did not use it and their graduation rates (χ2 = 17.534, p = .000). All users who completed the ELC portfolio (100%; N = 23/23) graduated 48.7 percent (n = 20/41) who did not complete the ELC portfolio option completed the program.


The findings from our study indicate a high percentage of students perceived PLA as a flexible and affordable method of evaluating prior knowledge and as an effective method of assessing knowledge acquired outside the educational setting. Findings also revealed graduation rates for nursing students who participated in both methods (CBE or ELC portfolio option) were significantly higher than peers who chose not to utilize a PLA option. This aligns with research that suggests students who participate in PLA opportunities have higher persistence rates than students who do not utilize PLA (McKay, Cohn, & Kuang, 2016). The findings are also congruent with Knowles' adult learning theory — that acquiring knowledge through life experiences is a motivator for learning (Merriam, 2001).

The reflection process involved in PLA provides learners with an opportunity to connect their learning to their life experiences. Establishing meaning and motivating students to want to learn, which supports higher persistence, are reflected in graduation rates and the many students identifying PLA as effective. PLAs are options that need to be explored and utilized more often in BSN completion programs. The affinity of PLA to the adult learner who traditionally enrolls in RN-BSN programs is high. Having knowledge gained outside the classroom assessed for college-level credit decreases educational costs and accelerates the pathway to nursing degree completion.


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McKay H., Cohn B., & Kuang L. (2016). Prior learning assessment redesign: Using evidence to support change. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 64, 196–201. doi:
McLeod S. (2017). Kolb: Learning styles. Retrieved from
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Rust D. Z., & Ikard W. L. (2016). Prior learning assessment portfolio completion: Improved outcomes at a public institution. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 64, 94–100. doi:
Sarver W., Cichra N., & Kline M. (2015). Perceived benefits, motivators, and barriers to advancing nurse education: Removing barriers to improve success. Nursing Education Perspectives, 36, 153–156. doi:

Credit-by-Examination; Experiential Learning; Prior Learning Assessment; RN-BSN Education

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