An overview of prior learning assessment and recognition


The following provides a high-level overview of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) in Canada, by delving into:

  • what is PLAR in Canada
  • historical background information
  • benefits of PLAR
  • diversity of practices, pathways, and policies at the pan-Canadian level
  • glossary of terms
  • general information for learners

For the purposes of this web content, the term PLAR will generally be used to capture the subject, and provide an overview for Canada with the understanding that a variety of terminology are used across provinces and territories.

Locate province- or territory-specific information

In Canada, education is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the country's 10 provinces and three territories. As a result, each province's and territory's education system has distinct policies and aspects.

For more details about individual provincial and territorial systems, visit the Provinces and Territories of Canada section and select a specific province or territory.

What is PLAR in Canada?

In Canada, PLAR is used to formally recognize learning that has occurred outside of the traditional (often public) postsecondary institutions. The prior learning may be formal, informal, non-formal, or experiential.

Prior learning assessment can be used for advanced entry into programs, and/or for course or program credit. Some postsecondary institutions also have credit banks; the awarding of credits based on pre-assessment of non-formal training programs or certificates. Common types of PLAR assessment options include reflection on learning supported by samples of work, completion of an assignment/project, demonstration of skills, an interview, resume, exam, self-assessment, and evidence (e.g., reference letter, employee evaluation). It is important to note that PLAR is about the learning, not the experience.

In many provinces and territories of Canada, prior learning assessment is commonly referred to as Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) and Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). In Quebec, the term Recognition of Acquired Competencies — RAC (reconnaissance des acquis et des compétences) is commonly used.

The following highlights a more comprehensive list of terminology (and associated acronyms) used:

In Canada:
  • prior learning assessment and Recognition (PLAR)
  • recognition of acquired competencies (RAC) or recognition of competencies (RC)
  • workforce skills recognition (RCMO - reconnaissance des compétences de la main-d'œuvre)
  • recognition of prior learning (RPL)
  • ·validation of prior learning (VPL)


  • assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL)
  • credit for learning (CPL)
  • prior learning assessment (PLA)
  • recognition of non-formal and informal learning outcomes (RNFILO)
  • validation of acquired experience (VAE)
  • validation of non-formal and informal learning (VNFIL)

Historical background information

The history of PLAR in Canada can be traced back to the 1970s when provincial governments and postsecondary institutions began to recognize the need for a more flexible and inclusive approach to education. The first recorded instances of postsecondary institutions implementing PLAR were in the early 1980s with Mohawk College (Ontario), Red River College (Manitoba) and the network of public general and vocational colleges (CEGEPs) (Quebec). In these early years, PLAR was primarily used in adult education programs, specifically in trades and vocational fields. Many of these early PLAR programs were guided by Indigenous ways of knowing. Today, PLAR is used more widely in a range of fields and industries.

Benefits of PLAR

There is a growing body of Canadian and global research on the benefits of PLAR. This research includes benefits for the students, institutions, provinces/territories, and countries. For the students, there are multiple benefits, which often begin with a cost benefit analysis, including saving time and tuition fees on formal education. The research also demonstrates that students' confidence in their skills and abilities increases, they can avoid duplicate training and education, and most can gain academic credits, occupational certification, or professional licensing. As well, employment and education goals are clarified. On more personal levels, research demonstrates that students who participate in PLAR normally have increased confidence in their ability to learn, enhanced interest and motivation to complete credentials, and improved self-confidence and self-esteem in education, career, and life. These benefits lead to improved employability and career development.

For postsecondary institutions/education providers, the benefits of offering PLAR are also varied, some of which have been mentioned earlier, such as improved recruitment and retention rates. In addition, PLAR can increase equity, diversity, and inclusion rates, making education more accessible to nontraditional students. Increasingly, postsecondary institutions supporting PLAR are demonstrating their accountability and responsiveness to the changing labour market, mobility of skilled professionals, and needs of students. PLAR can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the education process by supporting students into and through their formal education with less duplication of effort. Some professional regulatory organizations may also choose to engage in PLAR processes.

In Canada, provincial and territorial governments have contributed to support the continued development of skilled and resilient labour markets through PLAR. Utilizing PLAR helps close the growing skills gaps and increasing labour market shortages. As well, the recognition of prior learning increases the efficiency and effectiveness of education models, improving access for under-represented populations, such as nontraditional/adult learners, Indigenous peoples, and immigrants. These steps lead to increased labour market engagement, productivity, innovation, and economic growth.

Statement on the diversity of practices, pathways, and policies at the pan-Canadian level

The governance of postsecondary education systems is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Canada's 10 provinces and three territories. Consequently, we find a diversity of practices, pathways, and policies in PLAR across Canada. In Quebec, the provincial government has regulated PLAR for the network of cégeps and vocational training only. However, there are no other specific regulations in regards to consistency in the assessment criteria and processes at the pan-Canadian nor at the provincial/territorial level. Consequently, there is limited alignment in documentation and evidence required to support PLAR assessment. The Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) provides some general guidance regarding quality assurance and institution/organization collaboration for PLAR in Canada.

Glossary of terms

The following terminology may be used in Canada with some variation depending on context:

  • Advanced Placement/Standing: When a student is awarded advanced standing in a program based on prior experience (e.g., if a student is assessed to begin in the third year of a four-year degree program).
  • Assessment Methods: The methods with which the institution assesses and measures the student's prior knowledge in the prior learning assessment process.
  • Course-specific: When a student is granted credit for specific courses; measured against the learning outcomes of specific courses.
  • Evidence: Refers to documents or artifacts that demonstrate a student's prior learning. Evidence can include: professional certificates or licenses, work samples, training records, performance evaluations, military records, self-assessments, letters of reference, job descriptions, publications, awards and recognitions, and continuing education records.
  • Flexible Assessment: Prerequisites for a course or program are waived based on prior learning and experience.
  • Formal Learning: Guided by a formal curriculum, including for credit courses and programs offered at postsecondary institutions and other education providers, and leads to a formally recognized credential. Types of formal recognition of prior learning include transfer credit and credential recognition.
  • Informal Learning: Incidental (unplanned) learning, knowledge and skills acquired through life and work experience outside of formal learning environments. It often arises from work, volunteer, and community activities. There is no formal curriculum and no credits are earned. Samples of informal learning include: self-study, reading articles, performance support, coaching, mentoring, trial and error.
  • Non-formal Learning: Learning that is not provided by an education or training institute, and usually does not lead to course credit, a credential, or certification (such as a diploma, certificate or degree). Is often organized through participation in organized workplace-based training, non-credit courses, and workshops.
  • Program-based (block-credit award): When a student is awarded a block of credits towards a program; often based on the graduate competencies of the institution or program.
  • Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR): A structured method of assessing a student's prior knowledge and skills acquired through non-formal and informal learning or experience in relation to a specific goal. This can include learning that has occurred outside of traditional classroom settings through work, life experiences, and self-study.
  • Types of Prior Learning Assessment: Methods of awarding/assessing credits through PLAR. The methods used in postsecondary institutions to assess prior learning include written challenge exams, oral exams/interviews, performance assessments, product assessments, and portfolio assessments. The methods used to recognize prior learning include advanced placement, flexible assessment, course-specific, program-based,and credit bank.

General information for learners

Potential credit and recognition offerings

The amount of recognition or credits awarded will depend on factors including the types of PLAR offered by the institution, education provider, or organization, the program to which PLAR credits are applied, and the amount of experience (and learning) the student brings to their PLAR process. For example: one student may receive recognition in the form of second year placement into a four-year program, while another student may receive recognition in the form of a block of credits applied to their program of study, or in the form of registeration in an apprenticeship education program after successfully challenging the entrance exam.

Students roles and responsibilities

The student's roles and responsibilities are to identify, reflect, and document their prior learning. Some students may also be required to participate in an oral discussion — an interview of sorts — on their prior learning or complete a written challenge exam, performance assessment, or product or portfolio assessment. Students are expected to review and understand their postsecondary educational institution's/provider's PLAR policies and procedures.

Possible timelines

Most schools will identify specific timelines for the completion of PLAR. These timelines will depend on the educational institution/provider, program, and type of PLAR the student is participating in. Each phase of PLAR will have general timelines, such as an application deadline, provision of evidence of prior learning and an assessment period, a feedback period, a credit award period, and an appeal period (if needed).

Overview of range of costs for students

The cost of prior learning assessments will vary depending on factors such as the educational institution/provider providing the assessment, the assessment method being utilized, and the type and amount of PLAR credit being assessed. The price of PLAR can range from 25% of tuition/fees to 100%. Due to this variability, it is best to contact the postsecondary educational institution/provider directly regarding fees for their prior learning assessment practices.

Overview of types of PLAR support available

PLAR Advisors — called Pedagogy Advisors in Quebec — provide advice, guidance, and support to students on the types of PLAR available and how to prepare their submissions. In many educational institutions/providers across Canada, there are no dedicated PLAR Advisors, and this work is completed by faculty/program area experts.

PLAR Assessors evaluate the prior learning students document, determine if their submissions meet the requirements, and make recommendations for credit based on assessment results. Most assessors are subject matter experts with training in PLAR assessment and are often faculty members or program area professionals/experts. Assessment is normally based on established criteria and standards such as course learning objectives and education requirements.

Additional faculty and staff may support students in sharing policies and procedures, to ensure continuity of services and support for students, provide assessment results, highlight additional areas of learning, and track outcomes/data through record keeping.

Transferability of PLAR credits among educational institutions in Canada

There may be acceptance of PLAR credits between postsecondary educational institutions in Canada, depending on many factors, including program type and transcripting. Due to many variations in PLAR policies and processes, students are advised to confirm PLAR credit acceptance at the individual educational institution/provider they are planning to attend.