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Credit for prior learning: helping students present experiential learning for academic credit – featuring Baker Lawley


Many students enter degree programs with professional expertise or organizational experience that overlap with specific university course content. Boise State supports these students’ life-learning by providing opportunities to receive academic credit based on their significant experiential backgrounds. Students can complete standardized tests, challenge courses, or complete a prior learning portfolio. 

Recognizing and validating prior experiential learning has profound implications for diverse student populations. It not only acknowledges the diversity of learning pathways, but also promotes inclusivity by honoring the knowledge acquired through various life experiences. Boise State University does not award credit for experience alone. Credit may be awarded for verifiable learning gained through experience—not for the experience itself. 

Professor Baker Lawley
Professor Baker Lawley

The bachelor of applied science (BAS) and the interdisciplinary professional studies (IPS) programs have embraced the opportunity to work with students who bring a great deal of prior experiential learning to their educational journey. The program regularly offers IPS 301: Prior Learning Portfolio Development, a 1-credit course that walks students through the exploration of credit for prior learning options and the development of their prior learning portfolio. Baker Lawley, the lead instructor and developer of the course, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Experiential Learning Opportunities for the BAS and IPS programs. Lawley focuses on experiential learning opportunities, helping students integrate real-world experience with their degree, and translating their experiences into academic credit for specific courses. Lawley notes, ”Credit for Prior Learning is a powerful process for students. It validates their experiences, boosts their confidence, and propels them towards realizing the true value of their knowledge beyond conventional boundaries.”

Prior Learning Portfolio

IPS 301 leads students through the creation of their prior learning portfolio with the support of faculty and peers. It teaches methods of communicating experiences outside the classroom and reframing it as college-level learning. Instructors provide intensive feedback on all three components of the portfolio as students draft and revise them. 

The course is accompanied by an online textbook written specifically for Boise State students by Lawley.

A core emphasis of this course is the cultivation of a robust prior learning portfolio. Through multiple rounds of revision and structured exercises, students learn the art of assembling a comprehensive portfolio that substantiates and showcases their acquired knowledge, skills, and competencies. This portfolio serves as tangible evidence, enabling faculty to evaluate and assess the student’s prior learning in alignment with course learning objectives.

The prior learning portfolio is composed of an assortment of documents and artifacts demonstrating previous college-level learning. The portfolio contains three required components that validate the mastery of the learning objectives of the course the student is challenging. The three required components are as follows.

Prior Learning Resume

This is a modified resume that focuses on skills developed in work, community service or personal life experiences, to name a few.  It gives a clear and precise overview of the student’s skills and expertise. It de-emphasizes chronology, eliminating the stigma of resume gaps or wild changes to career fields. The Prior Learning Resume empowers students to design and tell the story of their learning and expertise. 

Educational Narratives

Narratives address the learning objectives for each course the student is challenging. They illuminate the experiences by telling stories of the learning, using specific examples. It lets students show their expertise and familiarity with the subject matter of the course they’re challenging by how well they interact with the topics and terminology. Its role is to allow the student to show their facility and depth of knowledge with a given subject matter, including examples and high levels of detail to demonstrate the learning they have done.

Supporting Documentation

This is a collection of documents verifying the learning students have done through experiences and responsibilities, adding context and enriching the Prior Learning Resume and Educational Narratives. It is a way to validate the expertise the student claims with their PLA Resume and Narrative. The documents in the Supporting Documentation collection serve as proof from external sources such as professional certifications, continuing education credits, workplace documents, and many more document types that give a recommendation and approval of their expertise. 

Types of Prior Learning

Experiences students may draw from for their prior learning portfolio may include: 

  • Professional and organizational expertise
  • Leadership positions
  • On-the-job training
  • Professional licenses
  • Industry certifications
  • Military training
  • Volunteer or nonprofit work
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Service on boards or advisory groups
  • In-service and professional development courses
  • Independent reading and study
  • Involvement in professional organizations or conferences
  • And many more

More Departments Offering Credit for Prior Learning

Over the last few semesters, Lawley and the IPS/BAS Program have been collaborating with other departments to increase the number of Credit for Prior Learning opportunities for students. While still including BAS/IPS course challenges, IPS 301 uses an adaptable framework that can help students from a wide range of academic disciplines to compile a strong portfolio. It is important that the students receive good advice from their department and discuss these opportunities with their academic advisor before signing up for the course. 

Success Stories and Testimonials

Prior Learning Portfolio submission isn’t just about granting credits; it’s about transforming lives. Helping students leverage their prior learning experiences to chart a more efficient academic journey is immensely rewarding for Lawley. It’s a win-win for the students and the University, too.

A total of 200 students have enrolled in IPS 301 since Spring 2020. In that time, IPS/BAS has issued 771 student credit hours, and saved students $269,850 (771 credits at $350 per SCH). And after earning CPL, students continuing to enroll for four or five semesters graduate at a rate of nearly 100%. 

This success mirrors national data on CPL. According to “The PLA Boost,” a 2020 study from the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, students who earn CPL take on average 17.6 more credits and graduate at a rate 22% higher than students who do not earn CPL. 

But the personal impact on students and their academic confidence is the most gratifying part of the process, Lawley notes. He shared a quote from a former CPL student, Andrea Fox:

“My advisor recommended the Prior Learning seminar to help me maximize my credits while saving time and money. I thought there was no way that I could talk my way out of any upper division college class, let alone three of them. but I figured it was at least worth a shot. … I had zero confidence in myself or my ability to demonstrate any valuable learning as it applied to these classes. I was an anxious mess and poor Baker, my instructor, was constantly reassuring me and basically getting me to chill out and trust the process. Through the process of documenting and supporting my education, I started to understand that I actually did have valuable experiences that translated to college-level learning. I was starting to realize that I did have something valuable to offer the world, that I did matter, and I was smart enough to finish what I started all those years ago.”


By empowering students to articulate and substantiate their knowledge gained through experience, Prior Learning Portfolios bridge the gap between traditional academia and learning done outside of a typical college classroom. This pathway enables us to create a more inclusive learning environment, acknowledging the diverse talents and experiences of our student body and the multifaceted nature of learning. By embracing and valuing prior experiences, the BAS/IPS program hopes to enrich its academic programs and empower its students on their educational journeys.


If you’d like to learn more about how to design your online course to include experiential learning, request a consultation with an eCampus staff member.

If you’d like to discuss the use of this course with your program, contact Baker Lawley.

Boise State also offers several other ways of earning credit for prior learning. The PACS Center offers various exams and placement services, while individual departments offer challenge exams and other opportunities for credit for prior learning.

Article Credit

Thanks to Baker Lawley and Laura Widenor, the eCampus instructional design consultant who worked with Baker on the Prior Learning Portfolio Development course. ChatGPT was used to support part of the writing of this article.