Embedding apel: Encouraging apel provision in Continuing Education

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Embedding APEL: Encouraging APEL Provision in Continuing Education

Elaine Cox and Val Green

Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, OX2 9AT


Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) “is now mainstream” is the optimistic claim made by a recent report of a survey of APEL in Higher Education commissioned by the Learning from Experience Trust (Merrifield et al 2000). This statement reflects evidence that a majority of Higher Education institutions (HEIs) now have an APEL policy in existence. However, as the report goes on to make clear:

“The adoption of APEL policies does not mean that there are substantial

numbers of students gaining APEL credit”. (Merrifield et al 2000 p.2)

In fact, the Learning from Experience Trust (LET) survey reveals that there are probably less than 100 students per year gaining credit through this route and that for APEL to enter the mainstream in practice, as well as in policy terms, requires changes to be made within HEIs. So, despite the fact that APEL is usually heralded as offering opportunities for people returning to study and thereby addressing national social inclusion and widening participation agendas the experience from the field is often disappointing.
APEL is defined by the Learning from Experience Trust (http://www.lettrust.org) report as “the award of credit for learning based on prior experience - including from work, community or volunteer experience - which has not previously been assessed and/or awarded credit” (Merrifield et al 2000 p.1). In this study we pay particular attention to the potential value of structured support for the accreditation of prior learning via modules or unit based approaches. In 1998 the Learning from Experience Trust reported that there were only 22 Universities in England who were offering a module in a “making experience count” area. So, in particular, we wanted to find out from such institutions their experience of running APEL modules and whether the marketing of such modules may be one solution to improving the take up of APEL opportunities by students.
This research has been carried out with financial support from ESCalate (http://www.escalate.ac.uk), which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council as part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network. ESCalate has been set up to support staff in Education and Continuing Education in Higher Education and therefore the dissemination of our findings and the making of recommendations to others in the field is a vital part of our mission.
One of the reasons for undertaking this study was that although we had both had a number of years’ experience of supporting adults back into education or employment, and had also both been adult returners ourselves, it was not until very recently that either of us became aware of APEL opportunities. It appears that although there is much lip service paid to APEL, there are only a few enthusiastic institutions and staff providing real opportunities to students. Challis suggested, over six years ago that “APL has the potential to widen access, increase flexibility in the curriculum and enable a positive value to be placed on off-campus learning” (UCAS 1997). However, as identified above, comparatively few students are finding out about APEL and being given the opportunity to obtain credit for their experience.
A further reason for our interest in APEL came from within our own institution, where an Open Award has been piloted. In this programme students who have a lot of work-based experience and/or are currently working can design their own diploma or degree, and can include a considerable amount of APEL credit in their award.

The purpose of this paper then, is to report on a small-scale qualitative review of APEL provision in Education and Continuing Education Departments in HEIs in England, in order to illuminate the barriers to APEL that might contribute to low take up figures, and to make recommendations for overcoming these barriers. In order to achieve this we explore the recent experiences of practitioners in order to identify whether there are mechanisms, such as a module or unit, which could be introduced to make the process easier from an institutional perspective. But we also wanted to explore how students themselves felt about the APEL process in order to find out what would have helped them. This, we hoped would shed light on how best to support students.


The research was conducted in two main phases, utilising qualitative data collection methods: -

Phase 1

  • An email questionnaire was sent to Continuing Education Departments at twenty Universities in England and Wales to gauge the extent to which APEL policy and practice are aligned.

  • Face-to-face interviews were held with a sample of 8 students in Oxfordshire and Berkshire who have recently made, or were about to make, an APEL claim. The majority of these were from the Healthcare sector, with some from Social Work and the Ministry. The students interviewed were all being offered APEL through Open Award or experience based courses affiliated to Oxford Brookes University.

Phase 2

  • Telephone interviews were conducted with key informants involved in APEL processes in Universities and in the community, particularly those involved with developing and delivering APEL modules.

The information assembled from our data has produced a variety of insights and raised a number of issues that could inform provision and help embed APEL more firmly in the Higher Education mainstream.

Student Profile
Our student sample was representative of those involved in other APEL initiatives in England and Wales. In the UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) briefing for Higher Education (1997), for example, APEL students were identified as being typically in the age range 25 – 45, and could be unemployed people seeking recognition for past work or non-work achievement, either for entry to Higher Education or advanced standing with credit towards an award, or people with certificated or non-certificated work-based learning seeking credit for that learning towards an award (UCAS 1997 p.8).
Our institutional respondents also confirmed that their students are invariably mature, well-motivated and in the age range 25 – 55. Often they have certificated learning as well and are all in work, either full time or part time, paid or unpaid. They have a wide range of occupations, but are frequently from healthcare or social services. One respondent suggested that the profile of students is gradually changing; with more post-graduate than under-graduate APEL claims being made. This trend would appear to support the LET finding that most APEL applicants are Continuing Professional Development students, since their employers are increasingly likely to subsidise the APEL route to accreditation (Merrifield et al 2000).

APEL Review

In this brief review of literature and other information relating to APEL across the UK we refer not only to books on the subject of APEL and experiential learning, but also to a number of websites and examples of good practice from other institutions in order to provide a snapshot of current opinion and provision.

In 1988, Norman Evans reported on a project designed to negotiate, establish, monitor and appraise schemes for the assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL) in polytechnics and colleges. In this report there is discussion of students’ motivation and achievements for undertaking APEL and also a description of different courses/ programmes around the country that offered APEL to their students at that time. The outcome was a set of principles (1988 p.7) that have guided APEL practitioners over the last decade: -
1. The responsibility rests with the student for making a claim and supporting the claim with appropriate evidence;

2. The experience of a student is significant only as a source of learning. The intellectual task of moving from a description of experience to an identification of the learning derived from that experience is demanding. But if it cannot be accomplished there is no learning to assess, however important to the individual that experience may have been;

3. Identification comes before assessment;

4. Academic assessment is the responsibility solely of academic staff;

5. The method of assessment needs to be appropriate for what is being assessed;

6. It is wise to separate the two academic functions of helping students prepare evidence of learning and assessing that learning.

In a later work, Experiential Learning (1992), Evans compares the ways in which the assessment and accreditation of prior and current experiential learning is being practiced in a variety of educational settings. In this book he details the beginnings of APEL in both America and Britain, follows progress through “a decade of APEL” (the 1980s) and then goes on to look at some tensions. Evans also highlights (p. 87) a useful set of criteria devised by one institution to guide assessors:-

  • Authenticity: that the student really did what is claimed in the proposal;

  • Directness: that the focus of learning was sharp rather than diffused;

  • Breadth: that the learning was not isolated from wider consideration;

  • Quality: that the learning had reached an acceptable academic level; and

  • Currency: that the student had kept up to date with recent developments.

Although it could be argued that such criteria are useful in any learning and teaching context, Evans implies that experiential learning is in some way different from other forms of learning. However, it is not the remit of this paper to enter this debate, but we flag it here for readers’ consideration.

Throughout, Evans is keen to point out that “all kinds of help, support and encouragement can be given. But the responsibility rests squarely on the man or woman for converting the experiential learning which is locked up within them into an external account of what it is” (1992 p. 69). He also describes the series of tasks that have to be completed: the first is psychological: “most people without formal education qualifications do not believe that they are much good as learners” (p.69). The second is to review past experiences and isolate incidents that seem to result in something being learned – reflection – anything can be included as long as it resulted in some learning that can be articulated/demonstrated. This leads to the next stage of describing the learning experience in clear unambiguous statements. The final stage is the collection and documentation of evidence to support the statements in readiness for assessment.
An APEL resource pack developed by the Flexible Learning Development Centre at Sheffield Hallam University in 1996, aimed to support both organisations and individuals through the APEL process identified by Evans. It provides not only a practical introduction to the background, uses and benefits of APEL but also gives practical examples of the sorts of materials needed in the practical implementation of APEL.

Building on Sheffield Hallam’s good practice, UCAS produced a briefing for Higher Education in1997. This short report was written on behalf of UCAS by Maggie Challis, who was then part of the Learning and Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam. It sheds light on APEL terminology and processes and also gives useful discipline base case studies, as a guide for the sector.

The growth of APEL throughout the 1990s generated the need for a major study of provision. This was undertaken by the Learning from Experience Trust in 1998, with funding from the DfEE. There were two main purposes: to survey the extent to which APEL was being applied in English HEIs; and to identify effective practices that would allow APEL to be applied cost effectively to larger numbers of students. The study was a wide-ranging examination of APEL policies and practices in England and identified a number of barriers to APEL for institutions, staff and students, particularly in relation to widening participation. This important report also recognised the benefits for all APEL stakeholders and made a number of recommendations to encourage ‘growth and scaling up’.

It is also important to recognise the considerable APEL development that has occurred in Scotland. For example Glasgow Caledonian University has a very a comprehensive website (http://gcal.ac.uk/APELIntro.htm) for developing an awareness of APEL for both experienced users and novice staff in Higher Education. From the site a handbook and a number of orientating activities can be accessed. In addition, both the University of Edinburgh (http://www.faculty-office.education.ed.ac.uk/pgapli.htm) and the University of Abertay Dundee (http://csev.tay.ac.uk/secretariat/APEL/APEL%20Handbook.htm) have comprehensive guides for APL/APEL implementation within their institutions.

In Northern Ireland, the University of Ulster has also recognised the importance of APEL in acknowledging the value of experiential learning, and has introduced an APEL module called “Accreditation of Prior Learning: Experience, practices and lifelong learning (with Key Skills Recognition)” (http://www.ulst.ac.uk/lldu/projects/apelmod.html)

In England, the University of Central England (UCE) combine their APEL module (http://www.hcc.uce.ac.uk/pdc/apel.htm) with academic writing skills to “ease the transition into academia, reduce failure and attrition rates and help prepare student for further study at a higher level. It also encourages students to write up learning experience from practice which could gain them academic credit.”
A number of publications have also been produced by South Bank University (http://www.sbu.ac.uk), the most recent being APEL and Lifelong Learning (2000) that addresses inclusivity. South Bank have also reported on a conference organized by the South East England Consortium for Credit Accumulation and Transfer (SEEC), that launched a code of practice for the assessment of Prior Experiential Learning (South Bank University, 1996)
The Value of APEL

The value of accrediting prior learning is almost always assumed, and APEL is therefore, one of those positively imbued concepts. However, there are sound pedagogical and ideological reasons for wanting to accredit prior learning, despite some attendant problems. Students we interviewed were all in agreement that, although APEL involved them in a lot of work, it was worth it:
I’ve learned a great deal. When I’m doing something else on the ward now, I think about what I want to get out of it and what other people will get out of it by way of learning.”
APEL has validated my experience and built up my confidence in my abilities.”
I would not have felt able to do a degree without being able to APEL my experience.

I saved two years and did it whilst still working and bringing up my children.”
One respondent felt that prior to undertaking the APEL process she had more knowledge than others credited her with. She felt that it would be helpful to students “especially mature ones, to have their experiences valued, even the ‘little’ experiences”, because of their lack of confidence in academic settings.
One of the main advantages of APEL for students appears to be the challenge and motivation that it engenders. Student respondents suggested that being ‘APELed’ was more challenging, both in terms of time and cognitive development, than actually taking the equivalent module itself. This is good news for APEL advocates, but raises important issues for other provision. Perhaps we are, as the LET report points out, expecting more from our APEL students than our other students (Merrifield et al 2000).
Students also enjoyed the fact that they were accountable for their own learning whilst developing an APEL portfolio: they liked being trusted and given responsibility for their learning:

I like the fact that you’re trusted. Other courses I have attended have been very prescribed. There is less jumping through hoops and you feel validated, valued and given responsibility.”

Rogers (1993 p. 232) has defined this trust as ‘caring for the learner.’ He further suggests that the facilitator’s prizing or acceptance of the learner is an operational expression of an essential confidence and trust in the capacity of the human organism. A staff respondent confirmed this requirement for APEL staff: “tutors have to be very sure of themselves and comfortable with giving responsibility to the student.”
All our respondents stressed that they would have been unable to achieve their level of qualification without the APEL process. All stated that this aspect is particularly key for people who have not studied much/at all since leaving school, as it validates their experiential knowledge of work and life. Staff also felt that APEL was a way of recognising that experience is a valuable source of learning.

Embedding APEL

As identified above, the Learning from Experience Trust (1988) has identified a number of barriers to APEL provision. Respondents in our study corroborate these, often major, stumbling blocks:-

  • APEL provision that provides support for individuals unfamiliar with HE is more costly, since more guidance and support is needed;

  • Although academic staff may be aware of APEL, students know little of its availability and potential;

  • APEL is widely regarded as time consuming and difficult;

  • Current funding streams in HE make flexible learning options more complex to fund and cost than fixed learning courses;

  • For staff: validity, sufficiency, currency, and appropriate evidence.

In order to have APEL provision truly embedded in HEIs these issues would need to be resolved, in a way that was reassuringly cost effective for institutions. In fact, such are the problems attending APEL in institutions at the moment, in relation to consistent and effective delivery, that one respondent captured the essence of many staff responses, when faced with an APEL enquiry:

Students approach the tutor and enquire about APEL and the tutor suggests they enroll and ‘see how they do’. The tutor then hopes they’ll forget about APEL and they usually do!
The way in which APEL is supported or handled in institutions is shown to be quite sporadic. Some institutions use APEL to allow mature students to gain access to courses, where they lack the necessary formal qualifications: others also use APEL to give students exemption from parts of existing courses. Some institutions offer no APEL and others have an energetic nucleus of staff who are innovators in the area of APEL support. Some problems appear to be caused by too loose a framework: independent study is agreed with tutor but the system is so flexible that it causes organisational problems. Responses to our email questionnaires indicate that the APEL offer in England and Wales could be seen as a continuum as illustrated below; ranging from those institutions that are not offering APEL at all, to those providing a taught module with credit for new learning and support for the development of the APEL portfolio.

There are also problems for students when support is patchy. Not only are there issues around awareness that provision exists, but it also appears that administrators in institutions are often not aware that APEL is available. As one student recalled:
It was easy to get lost in the admin, where the award wasn’t recognised because it is so individualised and unique.”
In addition, students invariably said that a lack of guidance and information meant that they found it difficult to understand the concepts involved in experiential learning at the outset:
I found it difficult to grasp what is wanted.”
I though it would just be an essay.”
It is a new way of working and completely unlike any other form of assessment.”

The idea of learning outcomes was very new and I spent a month doing the wrong thing.”

This lack of awareness, by staff and students, combined with the newness of the concepts led students to feel isolated by the APEL process. Only some of the students interviewed had had peer group support, but all felt that this would be extremely valuable.
One respondent also expressed concern that some students may receive credit that enabled them to gain advance standing onto a course, without necessarily having developed cognitive abilities. This is a danger where there is an inconsistent and unsupported system of APEL in operation.
These difficulties suggest that an efficient way of supporting students needs to be found, especially for the initial stages of APEL where many students felt they needed help to understand what is required and how to demonstrate evidence of their learning.

An APEL module

Where APEL policies and strategies for support do exist in institutions, students are given the responsibility for identifying the relevant learning achieved during their experience, and for making decisions on how best to demonstrate it with appropriate evidence. This is hard for students with no recent history of learning at HE level. As identified in an earlier study, mature students are not necessarily self-directing, especially when working within a new context (Cox 1995). Evans (1988 p.7) also confirms that students need considerable help in preparing an APEL claim and in understanding what is a sensible claim to make.

In their report the Learning from Experience Trust identified 22 HEIs that were offering an APEL module to help students prepare their APEL claim. In the second part of our study therefore, bearing in mind the barriers identified by both staff and students in our initial phase, we surveyed a number of institutions offering APEL or ‘Learning from Experience’ type modules, in order to ascertain whether the barriers to APEL could be overcome by such provision.
Three main reasons were given by institutions for wanting to offer an APEL module:
1. To offer recognition for the considerable learning achieved by the student during the APEL process: “students had to do a great deal of learning to put together a clam for APEL credit and we wished to have this recognised.”
2. To widen participation from under-represented groups: “we wanted to encourage mature and part-time students and show we valued their prior experience.”
3. To recognise that often skills are developed that are not otherwise assessed: “we could see the need for credit to be offered for transferable skills that students brought with them or learned on their courses.”
Module Structure and Portfolio Issues
There are a variety of modules being offered in institutions, although as stated earlier, availability is inconsistent and not all institutions feel it necessary to offer such structured support for APEL. Titles of modules we came across included: “Making your experience count”, “APEL and Programme Planning and “Learning from (Work) Experience,” and credit was awarded at all levels, from Higher Education (HE) level 1, up to M level, in line with the institution’s normal module or unit credit rating. Many institutions offer a freestanding APEL module as part of any programme of study, others have APEL in some schools or departments and not in others.

The LET report (2000) identified that modules focus on identifying learning that has taken place and reflecting on it to deepen insights, on developing a portfolio of evidence for learning and writing a reflective learning statement and that “this approach to guidance is seen as a learning experience in itself, and because reflective learning is difficult to do it is often regarded as appropriate to award credit for the process in its own right, over and above the credit claim based on prior learning.” (Merrifield et al 2000 p. 54)

Thus students generally gain credit for the module even if they are not able to compile an APEL portfolio for accreditation. They are awarded credit for the new learning that takes place as they prepare their individual portfolio and put together their claim. Assessment is usually linked to the development of the portfolio and understanding the APEL process, and involves reflective assignments, writing learning outcomes, oral presentations to peers, etc.
Although the introduction of an APEL module reduces some of the barriers, especially since it can boost student support and understanding of the learning process and also reduce the amount of time staff expend on individual support, there are still a number of issues related to the assessment of APEL portfolios themselves. These are centred around:-

  • levels of credit (staff need to be confident that they can recognise learning at the different HE levels)

  • grading (almost no grading of APEL portfolios takes place at present, having implications for degree classification)

  • subject specific or general credit (subject specific credit would need to be assessed by a subject specialist and this could mean delays, extra costs and problems where no expertise is available)

  • over assessment. HEIs have high expectations of APEL students, sometimes higher than those for students on taught courses (Merrifield et al 2000).

There are, admittedly, practical difficulties in grading APEL portfolios, often to do with the very individual and often specialist nature of experiential learning: some portfolios are difficult to assess without the benefit of specialist academic input. Some institutions suggested that portfolios of this nature would need to be disaggregated in order to be graded and recognised that this may prove difficult with larger portfolios. Merrifield et al (2000 p.56) have reported a conversation recorded during their research that illustrates the grading dilemma:

People say things like "oh, you can't give a grade because you're not actually

assessing the students' learning, you're assessing the evidence of their learning".

I said "well, what are you doing when they're writing an essay or sitting an exam,

you're not assessing what's in their head, you're assessing what comes out on

the paper." It's the same thing really. I think it's letting go the curriculum that

worries people, and giving students more responsibility in terms of their learning.” (2000 p.56)
These issues, we would argue, could be seen as reflecting a general lack of awareness in HE of levels and appropriate assessment practices. The expectation on APEL students, as identified in the LET report, is frequently so great, that, as one of our respondents suggested: “we may ask a student to go through so many hoops that it would be easier for them to have gone through a module instead.” APEL tries to make the implicit explicit and therefore throws HE practice into relief, thus making a thorough awareness of APEL a useful developmental process for staff and for HE itself. It makes the assessment of all learning more visible and obvious, both to academics and students. As another respondent confirmed: “it [the APEL module] has provided a focus for the nature of HE, the differences between levels, the role of learning outcomes and assessment criteria.”
APEL students appeared very aware of the shortcomings of most taught provision in education. As one student confirmed, in defence of the APEL process, “taught modules are about ‘playing a game’ – giving the tutor the information they want – they’re not about learning the information you need.”

Advantages to the Institution

Despite some residual problems, especially in relation to assessing the APEL portfolio itself, there are distinct advantages for institutions and students of the module format for APEL support:-

  • A module overcomes the cost of support: students pay for a module in the normal way (HEFCE or full-cost) and then just pay extra for the assessment of the portfolio, often depending on the number of credits claimed.

  • Resistance from faculty and professional bodies is overcome because the delivery and assessment process is more transparent, more traditional and meets quality assurance requirements.

  • Staff find the module no more time consuming to support than any other work or practically based learning module or unit.

The advantages of the module over and above individual support was identified by one staff respondent as “allowing time to develop the knowledge and skills students need, particularly as this is generally at the entry point to the programme.”

The module encompasses all the perceived advantages of APEL in relation to widening participation and recognising student achievement, whilst conforming to recognised institutional structures. Students can be tracked and monitored more easily than when they are individually assigned to a tutor and the bounded nature of the module eliminates uncertainty for all stakeholders, not least because the APEL portfolio produced is likely to be more consistent and thorough. It also enables institutions to register students and therefore capture valuable income for the provision. When APEL takes place on a more informal basis, staff time may well not be accounted for. Furthermore, as highlighted earlier the module can also provide a mechanism for staff to develop understanding of the nature of Higher Education processes.
There is however, one rider to this optimistic tally, in that, although less time is spent with individuals, our staff respondents warned that it is still necessary not to under-estimate the amount of staff time needed to support students studying in this way. Essentially, they would want to emphasise that it is not a short cut, or cheap option, for institutions or for students.

Advantages for Students of APEL module

Our study indicates that students gained immensely from the APEL process, and all felt able to compare their APEL experience very favourably with more traditional subject module participation.

From a student perspective, in addition to the general advantages of APEL highlighted earlier, the specific advantages of the module are that:

  • The effort expended developing experiential learning skills is given credit: they get credit for the process even if a portfolio isn’t produced;

  • There is peer support. The difficulty of finding evidence and the isolation and

unfamiliarity is eased by having a module to work through with others;

  • The module justifies the time spent on portfolio construction, as it is part of the formative work required for a module. As one student pointed out “a module would have addressed the clarity issues and legitimised the time spent. It’s difficult to justify the need for study leave if I’m not on a module. I feel apologetic and guilty if I leave my management tasks to pursue independent study. But there is an imperative with a module.”

  • The module enables APEL participation to be perceived as mainstream by management, staff and students.

Most students indicated that they were not used to experiential learning and reflecting on their practices, and found it hard to get to grips with it initially, particularly in combination with having to come to understand how to develop learning outcomes, understand academic levels, assess levels of credit etc. Issues like these, that appear to be common to the majority of students, could be addressed in a workshop based module, where students come together to discuss concerns collectively in groups, share their tacit learning and begin to achieve an understanding of what is required. As one member of staff pointed out most students usually had difficulty articulating what they wanted to achieve.

Tacit knowledge has a long and prestigious reputation for impenetrability (Polanyi 1967 , Schon, 1987). Students experiencing the struggle to communicate their learning, confirm that :-
Portfolio work just has to be done, as there is no other way to experience it. Reading about it, or being taught about it is no good – it has to be done.”
A statement by Evans highlights the difficulty surrounding the iterative nature of reflection on learning that is necessary to access tacit understanding. In relation to learning outcomes and evidence he suggests that people react to experiential learning “experientially; they experience it” (1992 p.119).
In another context, Torstendahl and Burrage have also explained how experience of life belongs to a different world of competence from that of theoretical knowledge: a world where experience and example are used as resources: where examples and particular cases make visible the underlying rules so that they are "concretised by being applied" (1990 p.59).
Considerable new learning is achieved in the process of tapping tacit knowledge. There are also other significant effects on students themselves. They start to think differently and recognise learning in all they do: one student is involved with students herself now and can identify what students are learning, even though they are not aware of their own learning.
Similarly one respondent has reported that ‘learning from work experience’ type modules may have a significance developmental effect on younger students, helping them to be more reflective and thus having a beneficial effect on other aspects of their work. This is an interesting point and one worthy of further investigation.
As well as these advantages, and those mentioned earlier as inherent in the APEL model itself, another advantage, worthy perhaps of further research, is the ability of the module mode of delivery to address different learning styles. Individual support focuses very much on reflective analysis, which is good for students who are naturally reflective learners, but for those who like to be more active and interactive, the group learning situations provided by the module could be more rewarding.


This paper has identified how, supporting students individually through the APEL process has, for a number of years, been identified as time consuming and costly. However, this barrier to expansion of provision is, we suggest, exacerbated by the very individual nature of experiential learning and the process that has evolved to assess such learning. Earlier, we made mention of the principles set out by Evans for APEL (1988). In some ways, however, these suggestions could be seen to have emphasised too greatly the individual nature of APEL learning, for in fact it could be viewed as no different from learning through theoretical input or practical work in the classroom. The learning achieved and subsequently articulated is the property of the individual whatever its source, and it is his or her responsibility to communicate (and prove) that learning to assessors.

We have identified that if more preparatory work is undertaken in groups, with students supporting each other through the process, and being able to gain credit for that work, then the problem can be reduced to just the assessment of a well-prepared APEL portfolio. Additionally, our discussions with staff currently delivering modules reveal enthusiasm and satisfaction with the process, and as we have seen there are also significant benefits for students, relating to their learning and understanding of the HE process. Perhaps all educational programmes, therefore, ought to have an element of reflective practice and experiential learning. The inclusion of work-based learning and learning contracts in all courses at all levels would make learning more explicit and fit with the recent calls by government and policy makers, for people to take responsibility for their own learning. Employers could also become more involved in helping employees to recognise experiential learning – in for example their appraisal processes.
The LET report suggests that APEL may have had its day and that we may need to consider another name: “APEL as a term may have run its course, or indeed have become so closely associated with a difficult and time consuming process that it should be dropped” (Merrifield et al 2000 p.60). Instead, it is suggested, we should be talking about reflective learning and assessing learning, wherever it occurs. However, as the report recognises there is nothing new here: in 1988 the CNAA proposed that “appropriate learning wherever it occurs, provided it can be assessed, may be recognised for academic credit towards an award.” (cited in Merrifield et al 2000 p.60).

Our paper also identified how the right kind of consistent support can help students and staff to approach APEL rigorously and equitably, in order to achieve learning outcomes compatible with those of standard provision. The cognitive awareness of learning developed within a workshop setting and the accreditation of their portfolio at an appropriate level would ensure that APEL students’ achievements were not compromised in any way.

Finally we want to end on a response that many proponents of APEL would support. It is a rewarding experience to help another to find learning they did not know they had achieved and to help them through the process of making that learning explicit. Our respondent confirms the magic:

  • when a student can make overt the tacit knowledge and understanding;

  • when they realise just how much learning they have gained through undertaking their job and through life;

  • when they gain the skills of reflection, and use these to identify starting points for learning, how they learnt, the progress made and where they may wish to go to along the pathway.


Cox, E. (1995). The Myth of Self-Direction: an examination and refutation of self-direction as both the goal and method of adult education. MA Dissertation, Department of Continuing Education, University of Warwick.

Evans, N. (1988). The Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning. London, CNAA.

Evans, N. (1992). Experiential Learning. London, Routledge.

Merrifield, J., McIntyre, D. et al (2000), Mapping APEL: Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning in Higher Education, London: Learning from Experience Trust.

Polanyi (1967). The Tacit Dimension, London, Routledge.

Rogers, C. (1993) The interpersonal relationship in the facilitation of learning. in Thorpe, M. Edwards, R. and Hanson, A. (Eds) Culture and Processes of Adult Learning, London, Routledge.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner, Jossey - Bass.

Torstendahl, R. and M. Burrage, Eds. (1990). The Formation of Professions. London, Sage.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (1997) Accreditation of Prior Learning: briefing for Higher Education, Cheltenham: UCAS.

E.Cox & V.Green

August, 2001

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