A philosophical history of programmatic assessment: tracing shifting configurations

Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2021 Apr 24. doi: 10.1007/s10459-021-10050-1. Online ahead of print.


Programmatic assessment is now well entrenched in medical education, allowing us to reflect on when it first emerged and how it evolved into the form we know today. Drawing upon the intellectual tradition of historical epistemology, we provide a philosophically-oriented historiographical study of programmatic assessment. Our goal is to trace its relatively short historical trajectory by describing shifting configurations in its scene of inquiry-focusing on questions, practices, and philosophical presuppositions. We identify three historical phases: emergence, evolution and entrenchment. For each, we describe the configurations of the scene; examine underlying philosophical presuppositions driving changes; and detail upshots in assessment practice. We find that programmatic assessment emerged in response to positivist 'turmoil' prior to 2005, driven by utility considerations and implicit pragmatist undertones. Once introduced, it evolved with notions of diversity and learning being underscored, and a constructivist ontology developing at its core. More recently, programmatic assessment has become entrenched as its own sub-discipline. Rich narratives have been emphasised, but philosophical underpinnings have been blurred. We hope to shed new light on current assessment practices in the medical education community by interrogating the history of programmatic assessment from this philosophical vantage point. Making philosophical presuppositions explicit highlights the perspectival nature of aspects of programmatic assessment, and suggest reasons for perceived benefits as well as potential tensions, contradictions and vulnerabilities in the approach today. We conclude by offering some reflections on important points to emerge from our historical study, and suggest 'what next' for programmatic assessment in light of this endeavour.

Keywords: Assessment; Historical epistemology; History of assessment; Philosophical positions; Programmatic assessment.