A critique of the assessment of professional skills

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B Reliability

An important criterion by which assessment should be judged is reliability.16 Reliable assessment is one that is seen to be objective, fairly administered, and consistently marked. Ideally, this means that an assessment task should be reproducible.17 This can be problematic in skills assessment, where a degree of subjectivity is often involved in the assessment process. Of course, subjectivity is also an issue in ‘traditional’ assessment forms, where different markers may award different grades for the same work. However, in assessing the appropriate demonstration of skills marker subjectivity is, perhaps, an even greater problem. For example, if students are asked to demonstrate their communication skills by developing and presenting a ‘convincing’ argument, individual markers may be more or less convinced according to their own assumptions about oral presentation style, structure, and the nature of professional conduct. The fact that an oral presentation of this type is only made once and cannot be reconsidered in the same way as written work also emphasises the problem of subjectivity, which could be limited by recording of performances to allow multiple marking and review of the exercise. Explicit marking criteria can assist in improving the reliability of assessments. However, assessment techniques that avoid professional judgement in the search for reliability may lead to a trivialisation of the content of the assessment. For example, Vleuten commented that ‘to break down communication skills into its smallest possible behavioural components in order to be able to check them better on a performance list may enhance objectivity but will not reflect the intended complexity of the skill’.18 Some reliable and rigorous assessment can also be dull, lifeless and have short-lasting outcomes.19

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