We reviewed the literature on instruments for work-based assessment in single clinical encounters, such as the mini-clinical evaluation exercise (mini-CEX), and examined differences between these instruments in characteristics and feasibility, reliability, validity and educational effect. A PubMed search of the literature published before 8 January 2009 yielded 39 articles dealing with 18 different assessment instruments. One researcher extracted data on the characteristics of the instruments and two researchers extracted data on feasibility, reliability, validity and educational effect. Instruments are predominantly formative. Feasibility is generally deemed good and assessor training occurs sparsely but is considered crucial for successful implementation. Acceptable reliability can be achieved with 10 encounters. The validity of many instruments is not investigated, but the validity of the mini-CEX and the 'clinical evaluation exercise' is supported by strong and significant correlations with other valid assessment instruments. The evidence from the few studies on educational effects is not very convincing. The reports on clinical assessment instruments for single work-based encounters are generally positive, but supporting evidence is sparse. Feasibility of instruments seems to be good and reliability requires a minimum of 10 encounters, but no clear conclusions emerge on other aspects. Studies on assessor and learner training and studies examining effects beyond 'happiness data' are badly needed.