7.4 How can Prior Learning be recognised?

7.4 How can Prior Learning be recognised?

Formal, non-formal, and informal learning have to be assessed differently, as they are very diverse approaches and are based on different experiences. Qualification analysis is useful to recognise formal qualifications, while competency assessments can facilitate validation of competences acquired through non-formal and informal learning. Such competency assessments thus also provide a chance for people without formal qualifications to have their experiences and skills validated and recognised.

To advance this recognition of knowledge, skills, and competences gained in non-formal and informal settings, there is a central effort towards establishing standardised and recognised qualifications and competence assessment procedures, which will hopefully make these approaches more feasible and attainable.


Recognition of Formal & Non-Formal Learning Through European Instruments

One important way of communicating learning outcomes in a transversal way are the available European Transparency Instruments. There are three main frameworks that apply to validating formal, non-formal and even informal learning achievements, which will be explained in more details below:

  1. ECVET including learning outcome methodology and ECVET credit system
  2. Micro-Credentials
  3. EQF including the descriptors of EQF levels
  4. CEFR including the internationally accepted language levels.

ECVET credits help to summarise the time spent on a formal or non-formal learning activity. They can be featured on a certificate and are recognised all across the EU. The ECVET learning outcomes help to formulate transparent, achievable and assessable learning goals a learner should accomplish by participating in a formal and non-formal learning offer. They follow a certain structure and are categorised into knowledge, skills and competences (sometimes autonomy/responsibility). Learning outcomes provide a fuller picture of the learning achievements and what a learner should have internalised upon completion of a course or training.

In 2021, the European Commission has started to focus on so-called Micro-Credentials, which will enhance and maybe even replace the ECVET system in the near future. Micro-Credential promises to be an interesting new approach and can be particularly useful in terms of prior learning recognition and European comparability and transparency.

The European Qualification Framework (EQF) is a transparency tool to translate between national qualification frameworks using learning outcome-based descriptors. Each formally achieved qualification is corresponding with a level from 1-8, with level 1 representing that a person is able to perform basic tasks under direct supervision in a structured context and level 8 representing that a person is extremely qualified and proficient, has specialised skills and has authority as well as a lot of responsibility. The EQF level is stated on formal certificates and diplomas, which allows the comparison of education and training accomplishments between EU member states. The EQF level is based on what a person is able to do, not only how much time they have invested in a learning offer.

Last, but not least, the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR) is an internationally accepted system that communicates the language proficiency in 6 levels, from basic (A1/A2) to independent (B1/B2) to proficient (C1/C2). Language courses, the used textbooks and the achieved certificates usually state the achieved CEFR level. But there is more to this, because the CEFR also comes with a self-assessment grid and a person can have different language proficiency in different areas such as understanding (listening & reading), speaking (interaction & production), and writing.


Recognition of Non-Formal and Informal Learning Through Digital, Individualised Methodologies

Today, learning happens not only in physical space, but also in virtual settings. Online learning is often self-directed and prompts the individual learner to take action and work on learning content. In formal learning contexts, this is often organised in a blended setting, which means that the self-directed learning happens in turns with directed, often face-to-face settings and is certified in a usual, formal manner.

When learning happens exclusively self-directed in online settings, it is often in a non-formal or even informal context. Depending on who provided the learning opportunity, there may be pedagogical objectives and strategies in place, which wrap the learning content in a digestible format for learners. If this is the case, the following three crucial steps are usually applied.

1) Learning Goals: Defining KnowledgeSkillsCompetences
Learning content must always serve the purpose of gaining new knowledge, skills, or competences, which are described in learning goals or learning outcomes (e.g. ECVET system).

Knowledge itself can be defined in many different ways, for example as theoretical and factual knowledge on a given subject. The process of assessing knowledge can be divided into categories, mainly into language skills, formal/non-formal/informal education, consultation on the recognition of qualifications, work experience, and social skills.

Skills are capacities and abilities gained through systematic, continuous and deliberate effort to achieve transferable qualities. Existing skills can be measured and assessed through a variety of different methods and methodology types which give a clear picture of a person’s skills.

Competences can be acquired in work placements, internships, job shadowing and similar situations – these settings are effective engagement tools within the labour market and allow measuring and assessing competencies that people have, for example in preparation for them to enter into the labour market.

There are many ways to describe learning goals, but they always focus on what the learner will be able to do after working through the provided content. Usually, it follows the general structure: “The learner will be able to – verb/action – object/content”, so for example: “The learner will be able to – recall – the three types of learning settings.” By clearly defining the aims of an individualised learning approach, it is possible to assess if a learner has reached their goals and if acquired knowledge, skills, or competences can be validated.

2) Didactic Concept: Using Serious Gaming as Motivation or Content Delivery Strategy
As self-directed learning centres on the individual it is crucial to find didactic strategies that keep a person engaged and motivated. Due to the human tendency to always search for meaning in what we do, it is a pedagogical fact that it is easier to learn something when it is wrapped in a story, a song or a game. In recent years, this strategy has been re-discovered and mixed with newer media such as video gaming, resulting in the serious gaming trend.

When used as a content delivery strategy, learning goals are usually defined at the beginning and the game is developed around it. In other cases, creative pedagogic professionals can use games made mainly for entertainment purposes and use them in a serious context to train e. g. literacy and numeracy skills or spatial thinking using games such as Scrabble, Minesweeper, or Tetris. This means that players play the game and internalise the learning objectives as a side effect.

Serious gaming elements are also excellent measures to motivate a learner to begin, pursue and finish tasks. By splitting up big objectives into smaller milestones, it is possible to engage the learner to take small steps towards their goal. It is always important to convey a sense of achievement and gratification when a step is accomplished. This can be anything from verbal praising (e. g. “Good job!”, “Well done!”) to a visualisation of achievement with colours (e. g. green or silver/gold elements) or a visualisation that reinforces the feeling of completion (e. g. showing 100%, 10/10, full progress bar, check marks). Additionally, typical game-related vocabulary or imagery can be used to further suggest a fun and engaging setting instead of strictly structured learning content.

3) Validation: Granting Digital Badges to Celebrate Achievements
In order to make the learning effects visible, serious gaming is sometimes paired with another, relatively new methodology: digital badges. Badges are used in entertainment games, too, as they have the main purpose of motivating the player to continue playing by providing gratification upon a completed task. Open badges, as introduced by the Mozilla Open Badges Project for example, go one step further as they validate the achieved learning outcome behind the badge. Unfortunately, these badges are not yet broadly used at the moment. Nonetheless, digital badges are extremely useful and can potentially be combined with European Micro-Credentials in the future. As this methodology of validation is still in a development phase across Europe, the upcoming years will show exciting new ways to recognise prior learning.


Reflective questions for the reader:

  1. Think of a foreign language you speak and try to rate yourself according to the CEFR.
  2. Think of how you could apply a tool such as digital badges with your mentees.
  3. How can elements of serious gaming be included as motivational factors?