The challenges of detecting progress in generic competencies in the clinical setting

Med Educ. 2018 Dec;52(12):1259-1270. doi: 10.1111/medu.13749.


Context: Competency-based medical education has spurred the implementation of longitudinal workplace-based assessment (WBA) programmes to track learners' development of competencies. These hinge on the appropriate use of assessment instruments by assessors. This study aimed to validate our assessment programme and specifically to explore whether assessors' beliefs and behaviours rendered the detection of progress possible.

Methods: We implemented a longitudinal WBA programme in the third year of a primarily rotation-based clerkship. The programme used the professionalism mini-evaluation exercise (P-MEX) to detect progress in generic competencies. We used mixed methods: a retrospective psychometric examination of student assessment data in one academic year, and a prospective focus group and interview study of assessors' beliefs and reported behaviours related to the assessment.

Results: We analysed 1662 assessment forms for 186 students. We conducted interviews and focus groups with 21 assessors from different professions and disciplines. Scores were excellent from the outset (3.5-3.7/4), with no meaningful increase across blocks (average overall scores: 3.6 in block 1 versus 3.7 in blocks 2 and 3; F = 8.310, d.f. 2, p < 0.001). The main source of variance was the forms (47%) and only 1% of variance was attributable to students, which led to low generalisability across forms (Eρ2 = 0.18). Assessors reported using multiple observations to produce their assessments and were reluctant to harm students by consigning anything negative to writing. They justified the use of a consistent benchmark across time by citing the basic nature of the form or a belief that the 'competencies' assessed were in fact fixed attributes that were unlikely to change.

Conclusions: Assessors may purposefully deviate from instructions in order to meet their ethical standards of good assessment. Furthermore, generic competencies may be viewed as intrinsic and fixed rather than as learnable. Implementing a longitudinal WBA programme is complex and requires careful consideration of assessors' beliefs and values.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Clerkship
  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Competency-Based Education*
  • Education, Medical
  • Educational Measurement / methods*
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies