May 23, 2019

Assessing Students on Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences

by Taylor Loper, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi

One thousand, four hundred and forty. That’s the minimum number of Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience (APPE) hours the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) mandates a pharmacy student receive before they graduate.1  Over the course of at least thirty-six weeks (and sometimes more), these students are exposed to a variety of practice settings, institutions, and situations designed to support the development of their knowledge, skills, and abilities.  Essentially, their competence to practice as a pharmacist following graduation. The ACPE Standards state that the APPEs should be designed to “hone practice skills, professional judgment, behaviors, attitudes and values, confidence, and sense of personal and professional responsibility.” Schools are also required to have a formal assessment of the achievement of APPE competencies using validated assessments. Student performance must be documented at key time points throughout these experiences.

The CAPE educational outcomes developed by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) are a set of goals that all pharmacy curriculums should be focused on achieving. These educational outcomes are linked to Entrustable Professional Activities (EPAs) that all pharmacy graduates should be able to perform.2 (For more on EntrustableProfessional Activities, see the post by Andrew Mays) Students should have ample opportunity to practice these activities become proficient, and demonstrate mastery before becoming licensed pharmacists. This can be problematic in that the heavily didactic nature of the first three years of the pharmacy curriculum results in few opportunities to practice these EPAs.  Too often students are often being assessed before they have an opportunity to master the EPAs during APPE rotations.

Reflecting back on my experiences as a pharmacy student, the assessment of learning on APPE rotations involved a series of assignments that had to be completed by the end of the rotation.  An example of this would be a set of questions asking you to reflect on interprofessional teams and the benefits of working with different professions at your current practice site. While most assignments were site-specific, several (like the one above) were repeated for multiple rotations. Additionally, specific objectives were set forth and students were asked to provide evidence of assignments or activities they completed that enabled them to meet those objectives. An example of this would be to “evaluate and interpret patient data.” A student could then provide details of working patients up, reviewing medical records, or conducting patient interviews. This gave students an opportunity for reflection while providing concrete examples of progress that the APPE preceptors could then base their end-of-rotation evaluations on. However, completing these assignments and documenting these examples was often time-consuming. By the final APPE, they felt cumbersome, especially the assignments that we had to repeatedly do on multiple rotations.

This process of assessing student performance raises several questions. First, how do we ensure each student meets the required competencies for each rotation? With practices settings and sites varying significantly, assessing each student on basic competencies can be difficult. Moreover, different preceptors have different expectations. All this variability makes it very difficult to create a consistent assessment process that is not dependent on the student’s learning experiences. Second, how do we assure an assessment tool can be applied in a variety of APPE rotations without omissions or redundancy? Requiring the same assignments and reassessing the same set of skills for a student who is taking two community rotations puts a strain on the student and preceptor. But we must find a way to ensure the student is developing on each rotation. Finally, how do we measure competency, such as the EPAs?  Should be rated “acceptable”?  Or “completed”? Should a student be required to “complete” them by the end of each APPE or by the end of all APPE experiences?

Several institutions have tried to address these questions. The System of Universal Clinical Competency Evaluation in the Sunshine State (SUCCESS), is an internet-based APPE assessment tool created by the colleges/schools of pharmacy in Florida.3 Under this system, preceptors rate students as “excellent”, “competent”, or “deficient” for each competency at the end of each APPE. They are also allowed to select “no opportunity” if not observed. These ratings were then converted by the school to determine the student’s grade.  There was a correction factor for students that were earlier along during their APPE schedule. It also allowed preceptors to weigh each competency based on importance and frequency in the practice setting / site. This weight provides preceptors the ability to focus on the learning goals that are most relevant. Another such tool was created by faculty at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy after the addition of 14 ability-based outcomes to their curriculum.4 By polling current preceptors, they were able to determine which competencies and outcomes were frequently observed and how important they are to the success of students on each APPE. These responses were used to create APPE-specific tools to ensure students met rotation goals that aligned with the ability-based outcomes of the curriculum.

It’s clear that assessing the performance of APPE students is a crucial, yet complex, task. Based on the two methods documented above, implementing an effective evaluation method requires the active participation of preceptors in developing a tool that is specific to each APPE experience. Preceptor evaluations of students need to be specific to the setting and site but must also relate to the overarching ACPE standards and ACCP outcomes.

I believe that monthly preceptor evaluations of students and their progress toward or achievement of learning objectives are necessary to ensure each APPE experience is helping to develop the student’s competence. However, rather than completing a series of monthly (and sometimes redundant) assignments, a series of unique assignments completed over the ENTIRE year coupled with specific ability-based assessments might be a better strategy.  This can reduce assignment fatigue and still provide appropriate documentation that each student can competently perform the EPAs and other educational outcomes before they graduate. It would great to see some research to determine the validity of this approach.

  1. Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Accreditation Standards and Key Elements for the Professional Program in Pharmacy Leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy Degree (Standards 2016). 2015.
  2. Haines ST, Pittenger AL, Stolte SK, et al. Core Entrustable Professional Activities for New Pharmacy Graduates. Am J Pharm Educ. 2017; 81(1): Article S2.
  3. Reid LD, Nemire R, Doty R, et al. An Automated Competency-Based Student Performance Assessment Program for Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiential Programs. Am J Pharm Educ. 2007; 71(6): Article 128.
  4. Gilliam EH, Brunner JM, Nuffer W, et al. Design and Content Validation of Setting-Specific Assessment Tools for Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience Rotations. [published online ahead of print March 6, 2019] Am J Pharm Educ. Article 7067.

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