As a science educator, you have likely experienced the effort of developing hands-on laboratory classrooms that are engaging, novel, affordable, relevant, sustainable, and effective. Gone are the days of holding long practical hours at many institutions, especially where budgets are tight, technical support staff are minimal, space is limited and student numbers are growing. There is also the question of whether many practical laboratory classes are fit for purpose: What skills do they actually assess? Is it the lab techniques we want students to learn, or are we more concerned with completing a form lab report or series of questions to give us something familiar to assess? We must ask ourselves if we are only assessing technical competencies in these lab classes, rather than the “softer” graduate skills that can increase our students’ employability and effectiveness as future professionals. Maybe it’s time to try something new?
Assessment of practical skills in health care programs
If we look beyond scientific disciplines, there may be lessons we can learn from colleagues in the health care professions. Many clinical programs have used the Objective Structured Clinical or Practical Examination (OSBE/OSPE) format to assess the skills, attributes and competencies of their students. Such assessments focus on skills or attributes, and not just on the tasks the student performs. They include multiple, timed stations where a student must undertake a task so that they can demonstrate specific skills or competencies. Student performance is assessed using clearly defined and consistent grading criteria for each station. We don’t tend to use this assessment method much in science, but it may be worth a try when aiming to develop more authentic assessments.
Where to start?
When considering introducing an OSPE-style assessment, the key thing to ask is: what are the skills we actually want to assess? It’s easy for educators to focus only on a lab procedure or technique rather than the actual skills, eg, “We’re just going to have them do a Western blot” without being clear in their minds. what it is to run a Western blot. is important and worth evaluating. The skills you want to evaluate will vary, but may include some of the following:
- Solving problems
- Numerical skills
- Handling difficult situations
- Health and safety
- Leadership Skills
- time management
- Interview skills
- Interpretation of text, graphics, images, data
- Language skills
Once you have an idea of what skills you want to assess, tasks can be developed that serve as a platform to assess these competencies. If you have healthcare colleagues in your institution, it may be worth seeking their advice and learning from their experiences. They can act as critical friends during the development process.
How do students and educators benefit from an OSPE-style assessment?
An OSPE assessment can help students reflect on what they do well and give them some direction on what skills they need to develop or improve. You can contextualize OSPE content to reflect real employment situations and this can be helpful when aiming for more authentic assessments. Students are motivated to succeed, there is greater objectivity in assessment and they can test a wider range of skills. OSPE performance may provide better evidence to use when commenting on certain skills and attributes when writing references, or when providing targeted academic support to learners.
Top tips for planning an OSPE
1. Your students. Who are they? How many of them are there? Do they have needs, requirements, ways of studying, etc.?
2. Why are you doing this?What skills or attributes do you need or want to assess? Are there resources or colleagues who can help you with this at your institution, or do you need the help or views of others?
3. Logistics.Location and time – wet lab? Clinical area? Sports facility? Multipurpose area? From a distance, e.g. field work? Computer lab? How many stations? How long will each station last?
4. Resources.Staff – how many academic staff, technicians, examiners? Do you need demo or practice days, exam days, marking time? Equipment – availability, costs, fast lab turnaround or equipment needed?
5. Planning for problems.What will you do if there are spills, breakages, power outages, fire alarms, IT problems and so on during your OSPE?
6. Illness or absence.What are the arrangements if staff or students are ill and unable to attend?
7. Nature of assessment.What should students do to demonstrate that they have acquired the required skills? This should be clear to all students and staff and the criteria should be published in advance. Will you use technology or paper-based submissions?
8. What if it works?How do you improve, expand to different disciplines, groups of students or staff, or different locations? How will you measure and share the success of OSPE?
We hope these ideas will help you develop OSPE to address the needs of your students. Parts of an OSPE will work well on your first try and other elements will need improvement – it’s an iterative process. But you may find that taking a chance and trying this assessment methodology is beneficial for both you and your students.
Derek Scott is Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology Education at the University of Aberdeen.
This advice is based on a presentation given at a HUBS-funded workshop, Fundamental Biosciences, organized by the University of East Anglia.
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