Prior learning assessment and recognition in Canada


The following explains how PLAR works in Canada by delving into:

  • types of PLAR
  • quality assurance
  • current topics and trends

Types of PLAR

The following provides an overview of the different types of PLAR awards and assessments that may be used in Canada.

How learning is awarded

Methods for awarding recognition of prior learning vary depending on the type of learning being assessed, the institution's/provider's PLAR policies and processes, and the type of programming credit that is being awarded.

Advanced entry/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, or assessed to move into the second period of apprenticeship technical training after successfully challenging the first period exam).

Credit bank

Allows students to receive credit for pre-assessed training from select employers, private trainers, and continuing studies programs.


Allows for a block of elective credit for students based on the PLAR credit, or elective room,

outlined in the student's program plan. Depending on the postsecondary educational institution/provider, learners may describe their learning from life and work experiences relative to their educational institution's program or institutional learning outcomes.

Credit awards

Credits are one of the primary methods used to determine and document that students have met academic requirements.


Allows students to petition for specific course credit (e.g., BBUS 3611, CMNS 1811). Learners follow the course learning-outcomes to develop a portfolio, describe their learning, reflect on the course theory, and provide evidence to support their learning claims. Assessors may require additional identification of learning such as: samples of work, completion of a project related to the course, demonstration of skills, an interview, or other assessment methods.


The waiving or exemption of specific course or program requirements if a student can show satisfactory completion of work at the same level and breadth of learning outcomes from a sending educational institution/provider or through prior learning assessment.

How learning is assessed

PLAR assessment methods vary depending on the type of learning being assessed and the institution/provider or program. The relevant faculty, subject matter expert, or assessor will determine the appropriate instrument to evaluate if competencies are met. As you read through the different types of assessment, you will notice some overlap.

Challenge exams/testing

This method may involve standardized exams or oral exams in a particular course, subject, or field. Assesses a person's existing knowledge for a particular course or program based on the learning outcomes and competencies. Some educational institutions may also use standardized exams, such as: DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP).


This method includes the student developing a portfolio of reflection on their learning and demonstration of their competencies, often with evidence to support their learning claims, knowledge, and skills. The portfolio may include work samples and presentations.


Includes a discussion between the student and a qualified assessor, a faculty member, and/or a subject matter expert in relation to the student's prior learning.

Skill demonstration/product assessment

Includes the student demonstrating their skills and abilities, in a particular subject or field. This may include: coding, giving a presentation, speaking a second or additional language.


This method may include writing a report that describes their learning experiences, or responding to a series of questions which prompt a student to reflect on their learning.

Worksite assessment/performance assessment

Involves direct supervision by a faculty member, a staff member or qualified assessor, and/or a subject matter expert in the workplace to observe, evaluate, and report on the demonstration of experiential learning in the workplace.

Review of external credentials

Some postsecondary educational institutions/providers offer a review of external credentials, such as professional certifications, continuing studies courses, and other learning to determine if they are comparable to the learning outcomes of a particular course or program.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance is an important consideration for PLAR in Canada. The Canadian Association of Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) is a pan-Canadian membership association that has supported discussions, raised awareness, and promoted the implementation of prior learning and recognition in Canada. CAPLA published a seminal document in 2015: Quality Assurance for the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in Canada: THE MANUAL. It provides a framework for the development and implementation of PLAR, including nine guiding principles for quality practice in Canada:

  1. Accessible
  2. Consistent
  3. Fair
  4. Respectful
  5. Valid
  6. Flexible
  7. Rigorous
  8. Transparent
  9. Professionally supported

In addition, many postsecondary educational institutions/providers adhere to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) based in the United States for their philosophies that guide quality assurance. The standards from both CAPLA and CAEL support quality, rigour, and the highest standards predicated on evidence-based research. Use of these quality assurance practices is strongly encouraged; however, specific PLAR quality assurance practices at educational institutions/providers will vary. Other forms of quality assurance also exist, including for recognized trade certificates and designations.

For additional information on educational institution/provider-specific quality assurance standards, contact the specific educational institution/provider.

An overview of current topics and trends

Increased interest by postsecondary educational institutions/providers

In recent years, there has been an increased interest by postsecondary educational institutions/providers across Canada to begin or grow their PLAR programs. This can be due to numerous reasons, such as:

  1. Responding to the changing and diverse needs of learners.
  2. Improving access to education for under-represented populations, such as nontraditional/adult learners, Indigenous peoples, and immigrants.
  3. Addressing skills shortages and supporting mobility of skilled professionals by providing students with a means to upgrade their skills and qualifications and have them recognized.
  4. Responding to the growing desire of individuals to reskill and upskill for increased employability.
  5. Supporting lifelong learning by providing students with the opportunity to have their past learning assessed and recognized.


For instance, in May 2023, Colleges and Institutes Canada — a Pan-Canadian association representing the interests of postsecondary educational institutions — released its Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) Reference Framework in Canada to support lifelong learning and bridge skills gaps. This framework provides tools, processes and quality practices to streamline skills upgrading.

Transfer credit versus PLAR

In Canada, transfer credit refers to the credit received when an educational institution/provider assesses and recognizes a student's prior studies from another educational institution/provider as being comparable to a course, part of a course, a block of courses, or a program in their educational institution/organization. This assessment of prior learning results in a student receiving transfer credit toward their new program for studies previously completed. There are some similarities and differences between recognition of prior learning through transfer credit or credential recognition and recognition of prior learning through PLAR in the various provinces and territories in Canada.

For example, in British Columbia, transfer credit only considers credit for formal learning from recognized postsecondary institutions. These must be listed in the British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfer (BCCAT) Transfer Guide, or by an Association of Accrediting Agencies of Canada (ACCC) member, Universities Canada (UnivCan) member, or accredited by one of the six accrediting bodies in the United States. Whereas, PLAR assess informal and non-formal learning through work and life experiences, and from non-recognized institutions.

In Alberta, the definition for recognition of prior learning includes recognition of formal learning for transfer credit and credential recognition, and of non-formal and informal learning for PLAR. Alberta Transfer System member institutions are from publicly funded, Indigenous, private not-for-profit, and out-of-province institutions from Alberta and five other provinces in Canada. Member institutions share Alberta Learner Pathways System Principles and common transfer system membership criteria, including sharing transfer decisions data for identified undergraduate courses or programs in the Transfer Alberta Search Tool.

Also in Alberta, transfer credit policies and practices are specific to each educational institution/provider, with transfer credits awarded at the discretion of the institution being transferred into/awarding the credit. Transfer credit practices generally assess for 80% comparability of course content, course credit hours, minimum grade required, resources, and stale-dating (as applicable). Students may receive transfer credit for a course, block of courses, or completed program or credential. Students may also access different types of PLAR services and receive PLAR credit for their non-formal and informal learning at participating institutions, organizations, or workplaces, including for course credits or advanced standing in an apprenticeship education program.

In Quebec, the Inter-University Transfer Agreement (IUT) [Autorisation d'études hors établissement (AEHE)] allows students registered at any other universities in Quebec to take courses, which will count toward a degree at their home university, at other Quebec universities. It is noted in this agreement that exchange, special, or visiting students are not included in the IUT agreement.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Newfoundland and Labrador Credit and Program Transfer Guide (2022-2023) distinguishes between transfer credit and PLAR, stating the “...granting of credit by an institution (either in the same or different area of study as that of the original institution) to students on the basis of previous study undertaken in another institution." While Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition is “…a process whereby previous learning is recognized and credited (the basic premise is that credit is not awarded for experience, but for the learning that has resulted from an experience)”.

The Algonquin College (Ontario) publishes a flowchart that delineates the difference between PLAR vs. credit transfer, offering readers a visualization of the difference between the two.

UNESCO 2019 Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education

Internationally, in 2019, UNESCO adopted the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education (Global Convention), becoming the first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope. Within its definitions, the concepts of prior learning, informal and non-formal learning, as well as non-traditional learning modes were included in the Global Convention. As such, this international framework now provides the basis for mobile students to seek recognition of documented or certified partial studies, as well as prior learning.