Academic staff from the School of Clinical Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal recently gathered at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine to share their experiences around processes and principles of managing learner assessments. The discussion was facilitated by Professor Thifheli Luvhengo, Adjunct Professor at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

While sharing his own experience at Wits, Luvhengo said the main assessment challenges faced by academic institutions is the inability by assessors to link assessment with learning outcomes. The second main challenge is the inability by universities in ensuring that anyone involved in training and assessment is continuously trained.

Luvhengo is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Surgery at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and at Wits.

During his talk, he listed seven recommendations for a smooth assessment process for institutions. These included making adequate attempts to ensure near similar exposure/learning opportunities to students and the participation of at least 10 subject/content experts in all the assessment processes.

Luvhengo stressed that assessment methods should be acceptable, valid, reliable, defensible, cost-effective and recommended the use of multiple assessment methods.

He explained why the cut-off score (pass mark) should not be fixed but be based on standard setting and elaborated that standard setting and vetting of examination questions should not be a once off process done behind a computer, but  should be done before and after the test.

During discussions, academics discussed worst case scenarios of an assessment process gone wrong like alienation of staff, students losing trust on the assessment process and most importantly the risk of the institution / university opening itself to litigation.

Luvhengo explained the importance of “Investing in staff training, prioritising setting of good questions linked to the curriculum, having a good buy-in from students, understanding of assessment standard setting by academics and repeated vetting of questions”.

Professor Luvhengo’s take home messages to the group were

What assessors need to know:

  1. Avoid short cuts
  2. Although we are in low income setting decisions we make during assessment are perhaps more critical and therefore everything we do should be defensible, and not be a compromise
  3. Only individuals who are involved in training and have been trained as assessors should be involved in assessment
  4. Whichever method is chosen it should be introduced gradually with buy-in from students and staff
  5. No single method is good
  6. Similarly, there should not be a single “I know it all person” as the tendency often is to market personal bias and preference
  7. There should not be fixation on punishment for possible guessing (negative marking) as each question potentially would have both false positives and false negatives

Dr Serela Ramklass, Academic Leader: Teaching and Learning in the School of Clinical Medicine expressed her gratitude to Professor Luvhengo for sharing his wealth of experience and knowledge on assessments in medical education. This meeting provided a valuable platform to begin dialogue on assessments and other curricula issues across South African medical programmes.

Words: Lihle Sosibo