Case Study 1

Trinity College Dublin:
Diploma in Addiction Studies
Special Purpose Award
Level 7 NFQ



Recognition of Prior Learning Policy

Institution - Level Policy

Programme - Level Policy

- Communication

- Data Collection


Recognition of Prior Learning Process

- Application Process

- Teaching and Learning





The Diploma in Addiction Studies resides within the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The Diploma is a 60 credit, full-time Special Purpose award, included at Level 7 on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ).

The purpose of the programme is to offer training and education to participants in the context of problematic alcohol and drug use. As per the Diploma in Addiction Studies Course Handbook (2009 – 2010), the course aims to:

…..view, examine and explore the theoretical and conceptual bases underpinning alcohol and drugs problems and to facilitate the acquisitions of skills and competencies in responding to these problems (p. 4).

The programme is typically taken by those already working, or hoping to work, with individuals, families and communities affected by alcohol and drug use. Participants return to their workplaces, or seek work, equipped with relevant learning and experience, including skills in at least one of the major addiction counseling models. A complete list of course aims, as set out in the Diploma in Addiction Studies Course Handbook (2009 – 2010) is available in Appendix 1. The programme comprises two semesters of academic work, together with a ten-week fieldwork placement.

Admission to the programme is based solely on the recognition of the applicant’s prior experiential and/or certified learning. Exemptions from programme components are not available. The programme admits a relatively small number of participants from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Accordingly, the teaching and learning experience is intensive and adapted to deal with the diversity of learners entering the programme.

The first semester of the programme is of eight weeks duration and is followed by a work placement. The third semester is used to assimilate experience and complete an end of year project. From 2010/11 the programme will follow a twelve week, ten week and four week schedule consisting of the same components. This is to reduce time allocated to the completion of the end of year project which has the potential to dominate learners’ priorities for a significant portion of the final semester as opposed to using this time to reflect on their work experience. The project and continuous assessment examines the development of learners’ knowledge base, new skills acquired and professional and personal development.

There is a high level of retention and successful completion associated with the programme.

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) Policy
Institution-Level Policy


TCD has flexible and largely decentralised admission policies where possible. It is considered that this approach allows for RPL policy and practice to be devised and managed within individual schools and ensures that decisions regarding admissions reside with the individuals closest to the programme and, importantly in the case of the addiction studies programme, allows for interaction with applicants from an early stage. A range of institutional support services such as the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) , counselling and health services and teaching and learning services are in place to support learners.
Each school returns a list of accepted applicants to the admissions office. The admissions office is responsible for issuing the offer of a place to an applicant and is also responsible for organising any associated Garda vetting.

Programme-Level Policy

As noted previously, admission to the Addiction Studies programme is exclusively through RPL. Exemptions from components of the Addiction Studies programme are not available: by its nature, a special purpose award represents a specific and focused remit of learning achievement. As described throughout, the aim of the programme is to develop the learner’s knowledge of addiction, to ensure the learner has relevant skills in line with current practice and also to assure the personal suitability of participants to work in this environment. The programme aims to deliver these outcomes in their entirety and the programme managers deem it necessary to do so to in all cases, even to learners with extensive experience. The programme is tailored to its learners’ needs, so that irrespective of background each learner develops and is assessed to meet the programmes learning outcomes. The programme aims to immerse its participants in experiential learning; accordingly, staff feel it would not make sense to exempt a learner from the reflection, growth and skills development offered by the Diploma in Addiction Studies.


The Diploma in Addiction Studies programme is promoted through a mail shot to as many as 800 social care and drug treatment agencies. The School is also in regular contact with a range of agencies to co-ordinate work placements and this serves to develop awareness of the programme. The programme prospectus is widely circulated and information on the programme is available on the TCD website. The programme is well known in the field and learners may be referred to it from agencies.

Data Collection

The School of Social Work and Social Policy maintains a database of learners who have graduated from the programme. Information on learners’ backgrounds and progression is recorded in this database and made available to the TCD careers office.

TCD admissions office keeps statistics of admissions through non-traditional routes or admission through specific schemes such as the Access programme. It is also institutional policy that a record of all interviews must be maintained for feedback purposes. Such feedback has been offered to individuals to advice of areas for development and a number of subsequent repeat applications to the Diploma in Addiction Studies have been successful. 

Recognition of Prior Learning Process

Since its establishment, twenty-eight cohorts of students have been admitted to the Diploma in Addiction Studies with a typical class having approximately twenty-four students. The programme is not available for application through the CAO; entry to the programme is based entirely on the recognition of the applicant’s prior learning and applicants are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Each group of learners is drawn from varied backgrounds; learners may have a combination of prior certified learning, professional experience, work-related experience or personal experiences which have led to their interest in the Diploma programme. The majority of applicants to the programme are Irish, with experience obtained in Ireland.

Applicants may pay for the programme independently, they may be sponsored by employers, or funding or financial assistance may be sought through the National Drugs Task Force or local authorities.

Table 4: RPL Application Process

Application Process

1. Initial enquiries are referred to programme staff. On receiving such enquiries, applicants are advised that relevant experience is essential. Where it is clear that the applicant may not have sufficient relevant experience, staff will refer individuals to social care and drug treatment agencies who may offer further experience and opportunities to develop their learning.
2. Enquiries may progress to initial meetings and a formal application to join the programme. Applicants are asked to submit the following:
• A completed application form (including contact details for two referees);
• A full Curriculum Vitae (CV); and
• A 1, 000 word essay discussing a relevant experience of the applicant.
3. The previous experience which is detailed in these documents may be verified with follow-up phone calls and referees are also contacted.
4. Applicants are then shortlisted and are called for individual interviews on a single day. A number of interview boards are drawn together comprising both TCD and external staff. Importantly, certain questions regarding prior experience cannot be asked for legal reasons.
Sample discussion areas at applicant interviews include:
• Why have you applied to this programme at this time?
• Discussion of relevant experiences
• Knowledge of drug and alcohol policy, established by the government and Health Service Executive
• Experience of previous education
• Awareness of drug rehabilitation assessments
5. Applicants’ writing ability is examined through a written exercise completed by the shortlisted group on the morning of the interview. Applicants are asked to write on a given topic for 40 minutes as a means of determining the writing ability of each applicant and their capacity to participate in and complete the programme.

Unsuccessful Applications

Applications may be turned down where the applicant has insufficient experience or where it is clear the applicant will be unable to meet the academic challenges of the programme. In some cases a decision to turn down an application may be due to a lack of availability of spaces on the programme. As noted, a sufficient level of literacy skills is necessary to be admitted to the programme; where the applicant is unsuccessful on account of issues with reading and writing they will be referred to adult literacy supports.


Appeals fall within the remit of the TCD institutional appeals process:
• In the first instance an appeal is made directly to the Senior Lecturer;
• Normally those who are not admitted are placed on a waiting list and may be admitted depending on the availability of places on the Diploma programme at a future date;
• Applicants who have been deemed ineligible for the programme (without the offer of being placed on a waiting list) may be offered further guidance as to alternative avenues.
The School has not received any formal appeals to date.

Time Line

• The closing date for applications normally falls within the last two weeks of April.
• Short listing occurs and interviews are held by the last week of May.
• Places are offered by the end of June.
There are typically forty to forty five applications to join the programme.

















































Teaching Teaching and Learning

The teaching and learning strategy for the Diploma in Addiction Studies has been designed to cater for the diverse backgrounds from which the group of learners may be drawn. The intellectual development of learners is only one aspect of the programme. The programme focuses on developing the learner’s knowledge base, and personal and professional development. The learning styles of each learner are explored early in the programme as part of orientation, guided by input from the TCD School of Education. This exploration examines the learning objectives and learning outcomes to be attained by the learner and assessment will be structured mindful of differing skills and abilities. For instance, learners may speak of their fear of coping with the academic aspect of the programme. The School, however, aims to educate experienced, well-rounded people with a level of maturity and will provide tutorials to address areas where learners struggle with academic elements.

The teaching philosophy of the programme is based on William Perry’s model of intellectual development , which identifies four broad stages of intellectual progress and the interventions that educators can offer at each stage to assist students. A high level of energy and investment is required from staff and learners when engaging in a teaching and learning strategy of this nature. In the first semester of the programme, particular encouragement is offered to learners through personal awareness group discussions. Tutorials are provided to support and assist the students in terms of their learning needs, struggles with any academic element of the programme, their personal learning agenda and also the development of the major project to be submitted at the end of the programme. Classes and tutorials can be quite interactive and discussion focused, fostering a collaborative environment.
A high level of facilitation is also required and lecturers more accustomed to a traditional lecture-based mode of delivery of learning have commented on the different, but positive experiences of teaching to the Diploma in Addiction Studies cohorts. The level of personal interaction with learners is contained however; students may on occasion need to be referred to the University counselling services in order to address issues which emerge outside of the remit of the classroom.

Table 5: Programme Assessment


A high standard of work and performance is expected of learners. There are five pieces of work to be completed as part of the programme including:
1. Three essays;
a. A general project essay (1,500 – 2,000 words, submitted in November);
b. A social research essay (1,500 – 2,000 words submitted in December); and
c. A criminology essay (1,500 - 2,000 words, submitted in January).
2. A placement report (3, 000 – 3,500 words, submitted at the beginning of the third term on completion of placement); and
3. A final project (7, 000 – 7,500 words): The final project may comprise a literature review or piece of research examining a range of ideas or topic of interest. Ideas may emerge from work placement or previous experiences.
There is also a range of non-assessed work and activities such as presentations, agency visits and group work. Attendance at lectures and tutorials is compulsory.


Staff suggested that responding to an external drive to increase the numbers of individuals participating in programmes and to have prior learning recognised will not be successful if learners are not prepared or able meet the demands of study and formal learning. The experience of the School of Social Work and Social Policy has been that learners are very motivated and that there have been high retention rates. Key to this is the high level of personal contact with learners right from receipt of an initial enquiry to provide learners with the best opportunity to gain admission. Once enrolled, high standards are expected of participants. Accordingly, the School gives encouragement and support to ensure learners are prepared for and realistic about the demands of the programme.

As described, the School admits applicants who are often already in employment in the treatment of problematic alcohol and drug use, or seeking employment in this sector having had relevant life experience. One of the objectives of the programme is to move learners into a professional, or more professional sphere. Importantly, prior learning may be both positive and negative - in some cases there may be aspects of prior learning, which emerge through the interview, essay or indeed during the programme, that need to be ‘unlearned’ as part of a learner’s professional development. A decision to admit an applicant may be influenced by a wish to reconcile an individual’s prior learning with current learning, and subsequent teaching practice and interaction with learners may seek to redress attitudes or practices which have developed through prior learning.

Staff emphasised the benefit of having the RPL process within the control of the School of Social Work and Social Policy, owing to the decentralised admission policies within TCD. This policy approach allows for subject experts to make admission decisions and interact with learners from an early stage. TCD infrastructure and teaching and learning services ensure there are outlets to address any issues the School may encounter, such as the literacy issue addressed above, including a range of undergraduate departmental committees and department staff.

Admitting learners through an RPL process ensures staff are realistic as to the demands placed on learners. In some cases, recognising prior learning is not enough and other basic requirements, such as student support structures, must be in place. Learners will not remain with a programme when other difficulties have not been resolved. Staff must be mindful of the range of backgrounds from which learners may come and consequently the issues that may need to be resolved. Any issues which arise may require significant investment in each learner. Such investment may not always be possible in every programme, particularly where significant demands are placed on staff in programmes which high numbers of learners.

Discretion in making admission decisions is essential. The experience of the School is that applicants who have not completed the Junior Certificate or Leaving Certificate may excel in all aspects of the programme. Some graduates of the programme have progressed to social studies programmes at primary degree level or to further addiction, counselling, education or social care programmes at MA / MSc level and others have progressed in their employment with some now running drug treatment centres.


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