The importance of assessment in the medical undergraduate curriculum…. and beyond!

Written by Dr Melanie Coulson (MbChB, MSc, FHEA) (Medical Education AFP)

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Dr Melanie Couslon

Twitter: @Mel24712808

What is assessment?

Assessment during the medical undergraduate degree has many forms. Most medical students can identify commonly defined categories. Is it formative or summative? Is it placement-based? Is it interprofessional? Is it a written exam or an ‘Objective Structured Clinical Examination’ (OSCE)? Additionally, when reviewing assessment techniques, assessors must consider the ‘soft skills’ of the curriculum too. Soft skills include communication, teamwork, professionalism, and leadership.

Is there a requirement to assess?

In short- yes, because the General Medical Council (GMC) says so! However, it is not as simple as that. Medical schools must ensure their assessments are mapped to the curriculum (Tomorrow’s Doctors (2009)). Furthermore, they must be able to prove their assessment methods are valid, reliable, fair, acceptable, cost-effective, etc. Medical schools regularly get audited on the transparency of their assessment techniques and therefore are accountable to the GMC and Medical School’s Council (MSC) for this.

What is the purpose of assessment?

Whilst there are many advantages, in my opinion, the most important benefit is to allow for feedback. Assessment in an appropriate environment allows for a dialogue of considered, efficient, and regular feedback between the student and teacher. This then improves students’ performance as well as initiating a reflective loop, often aided by models such as Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb (1984)).

Additionally, a formative assessment allows for students to informally and dynamically close the gap between current and required performance standards; it is mostly the student who reaps the rewards of a formative assessment. Medical schools must also demonstrate there is sufficient summative assessment of their students to justify their graduation to foundation doctor status. However, summative assessments are commonly criticised because they encourage rote, surface-level learning and may not promote thorough understanding. Therefore, most medical school curricula normally have a blend of summative and formative exams for optimum performance of their students both in the short term and beyond!

In summary, assessment is necessary and is useful when carried out correctly. Assessment of key skills, including soft skills, will aid medical students to become the best doctors they can be in the future.

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