Background: There is still a great deal to be learnt about teaching and assessing undergraduate communication skills, particularly as formal teaching in this area expands. One approach is to use the summative assessments of these skills in formative ways. Discourse analysis of data collected from final year examinations sheds light on the grounds for assessing students as 'good' or 'poor' communicators. This approach can feed into the teaching/learning of communication skills in the undergraduate curriculum.
Setting: A final year UK medical school objective structured clinical examination (OSCE).
Methods: Four scenarios, designed to assess communication skills in challenging contexts, were included in the OSCE. Video recordings of all interactions at these stations were screened. A sample covering a range of good, average and poor performances were transcribed and analysed. Discourse analysis methods were used to identify 'key components of communicative style'.
Findings: Analysis revealed important differences in communicative styles between candidates who scored highly and those who did poorly. These related to: empathetic versus 'retractive' styles of communicating; the importance of thematically staging a consultation, and the impact of values and assumptions on the outcome of a consultation.
Conclusion: Detailed discourse analysis sheds light on patterns of communicative style and provides an analytic language for students to raise awareness of their own communication. This challenges standard approaches to teaching communication and shows the value of using summative assessments in formative ways.