Context: Performance assessments, such as workplace-based assessments (WBAs), represent a crucial component of assessment strategy in medical education. Persistent concerns about rater variability in performance assessments have resulted in a new field of study focusing on the cognitive processes used by raters, or more inclusively, by assessors.
Methods: An international group of researchers met regularly to share and critique key findings in assessor cognition research. Through iterative discussions, they identified the prevailing approaches to assessor cognition research and noted that each of them were based on nearly disparate theoretical frameworks and literatures. This paper aims to provide a conceptual review of the different perspectives used by researchers in this field using the specific example of WBA.
Results: Three distinct, but not mutually exclusive, perspectives on the origins and possible solutions to variability in assessment judgements emerged from the discussions within the group of researchers: (i) the assessor as trainable: assessors vary because they do not apply assessment criteria correctly, use varied frames of reference and make unjustified inferences; (ii) the assessor as fallible: variations arise as a result of fundamental limitations in human cognition that mean assessors are readily and haphazardly influenced by their immediate context, and (iii) the assessor as meaningfully idiosyncratic: experts are capable of making sense of highly complex and nuanced scenarios through inference and contextual sensitivity, which suggests assessor differences may represent legitimate experience-based interpretations.
Conclusions: Although each of the perspectives discussed in this paper advances our understanding of assessor cognition and its impact on WBA, every perspective has its limitations. Following a discussion of areas of concordance and discordance across the perspectives, we propose a coexistent view in which researchers and practitioners utilise aspects of all three perspectives with the goal of advancing assessment quality and ultimately improving patient care.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.