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Assessment of Prior Learning (APL)

A hot topic in higher education these days is Competency-Based Education (CBE). Often coupled with CBE is a process called Assessment of Prior Learning (APL). Neither CBE nor APL are new, but each is taking different and intriguing forms in the current discussion. More on CBE later.

For admission, schools routinely rely on assessment of prior learning. For schools accredited by the Commission on Accrediting of ATS, that assessment normally includes credentials conferred by another institution of higher learning assumed to indicate achievement that qualifies students for next levels of study. For admission to master’s degree programs of theological study, the bachelor’s degree, especially the Bachelor of Arts, has been considered a shorthand marker for assessment of appropriate prior learning. The Commission’s Master of Divinity degree program standard, for example, names a baccalaureate degree as one requirement for admission to an MDiv program. As a possible exception, ATS schools may include as many as 15 percent of students in the program “without possession of the baccalaureate degree or its educational equivalent,” if the school has done “educationally appropriate and rigorous” evaluation of those students’ academic ability.

Previous versions of the ATS Standards of Accreditation included a recommended bachelor’s degree curriculum, heavy in the liberal arts, as suitable preparation for graduate theological study. Interestingly, along with the list of course areas was an emphasis on “mastery of these fields,” rather than counting “semester hours or credits.” By the late 1960s, changes in undergraduate programs and the proliferation of majors led the Association to accommodate by making the list of recommended courses less specific, then eliminating it altogether by 1968. The final “Statement on Pre-Seminary Studies,” in 1966, continued to emphasize that “It is the understanding gained in these fields rather than the total of credits or semester hours which is significant.” Likewise, “The principle constantly to be kept in mind is not that of satisfying paper regulations and minimum requirements, but making the most of opportunities for education.”

In recent decades, of course, bachelor’s degrees have become much less uniform.

A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni identified the disappearance of US history courses from the curricula of “top” liberal arts colleges (only 7 of 25 required US history), national universities (4 of 25), and public institutions (14 of 25). And of those that require US history, almost half allow courses to count that are narrow in scope, such as “History of Sexualities,” or “History of the FBI.” And this is for history majors! This is particularly painful for me since I’m a historian by training.

I could go on at length bemoaning this loss of interest in the broader sweep of US history and the implications of that loss for citizenship and understanding, but my point here is to echo what I have heard in numerous discussions of theological educators, that undergraduate degrees don’t necessarily signal adequate preparation for master’s level theological study.

In the educational models and practices peer group studying shortened MDiv programs, for example, an issue of concern is that in the midst of pressures to shorten and make possible more timely completion of the MDiv degree, many students studying for that degree are less well equipped by their previous academic work than earlier generations of students had been. Group participants note that some bachelor’s degrees don’t require writing or oral presentation, for example, much less philosophy or the other liberal arts.

Participants in that peer group study as well as those in other groups, such as the one studying programs for those without the bachelor’s degree, note that many students seeking theological studies in ATS schools are currently in ministries of various types, doing the work of the Gospel effectively, but desiring to strengthen their ministries through deeper theological study. How can schools take seriously what they bring to theological study rather than simply recognizing what they lack? One of the most intriguing aspects of APL is that possibility, of finding a way to assess what has been learned through non-academic means that is legitimate preparation for graduate theological study, and also finding a means by which to give “credit” for that learning. Of course, just having done something doesn’t necessarily signify learning—at least not appropriate learning! But many have learned a great deal through a variety of means and it is only fair to find ways to recognize and validate that learning.

Which brings me back to Assessment of Prior Learning. APL can be both sophisticated and complex and so is not a quick fix for the problems of discerning adequate and appropriate preparation for graduate theological study. But a number of “what ifs?” come to mind.

What if we stepped back behind the assumptions made about the bachelor’s degree as marking adequate preparation for graduate theological study and thought more broadly about qualifications for such study?

What if the sophisticated processes of assessment of prior learning currently underway at some undergraduate institutions could be adapted for candidates for theological study?

What if theological schools, few of which have the resources available to duplicate such a process by themselves, could collaborate in the development of a shared process?

I’d be interested to hear your reflections and “what ifs.”

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My institution would be interested in APL, particularly for assessing applicants who are graduates of non-accredited Bible-oriented Christian schools.

Andrew, in the educational models project we have a peer group of schools studying programs to assist those without accredited bachelor's degrees. The peer groups will prepare reports for a spring 2017 and we'll post some reflections on the group's work, so stay tuned. Also, you might check with AETH (Asociación para La Educación Teológica Hispana), an affiliate of ATS that has some materials that might be useful for you.

I'm a newbie to both APL and CBE (Competency Based Education) and I'm interested in the way they are related or even linked. It would seem to me that both defining competencies and developing meaningful measures of them would be strain for most theological schools, so some sort of shared resource would be desirable. However, in defining competencies, would not be important to also partner with institutional churches? I know that is a mighty tall order but it would seem that their cooperation and actual acceptance of the models, definitions, and measures would be key to success.

Duane, I think you are on target about both the labor intensive nature of APL and the necessity of partnerships with churches. Each school would need to be sure that identified competencies are compatible with the school's constituencies. The parallel with most APL programs in undergraduate institutions is partnerships with employers.

There are many reasons why you are right on point to be thinking in this direction! We have much to learn not only from undergraduate schools who are pursuing these more robust and granular approaches to assessment of prior learning, but also from secondary schools. There is excellent work being done across North America in project-based learning in these schools. Yet it's not only assessment of prior learning that's necessary, but also finding ways to develop more inquiry-driven approaches once students arrive in seminary. Glad to see ATS is paying attention to these trends.

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