January 16, 2023

Achieving the Promise of Authentic Workplace-Based Assessments

by Sophie Durham, PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, Mississippi State Department of Health Pharmacy

Workplace-based assessments (WBAs) can be intimidating and burdensome for students and evaluators alike; however, these assessments pose an opportunity to use real-time direct observation to provide feedback that supports a learner’s growth and development.1 Unfortunately, students often fail to see the usefulness of feedback in clinical settings or feel that their grades might be negatively affected by observations reported through workplace-based assessments.

Throughout my Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPEs), I craved feedback so that I could develop as a clinician and ensure that I was providing optimal patient care. I valued the feedback that I received at the midpoint and final evaluations; however, these evaluations were used to determine my final grade. As a student, I benefitted from receiving more frequent, informal feedback to improve my performance in real time. By providing students with more timely formative assessments, preceptors allow students to reflect on their experiences and make necessary corrections to improve their practices without the stress of contributing to their grades.

WBAs are used to evaluate trainees’ performance in practice and can be used by learners as relevant feedback to engage in reflection. WBAs encompass a wide range of assessment strategies that require evaluators to move away from merely assigning numbers toward a more structured format of assessment. WBAs can be used to provide feedback on trainee-patient interactions, procedural skills, case-based discussions, and multi-source feedback.2

Lauren Phinney and colleagues at the University of California San Francisco used cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) to identify feedback system elements and tensions among these elements to explore workplace-based assessment used during medical clerkships. The school introduced a WBA tool in 2019 that includes drop-down items describing the clerkship specialty, skills observed, entrustment ratings adapted from the Ottawa scale, and space for narrative comments to encourage formative feedback. Students are required to gather two WBAs per week. The research interviewed first and second-year medical students participating in core clerkship rotations.1

CHAT allows investigators to examine how tools mediate activities. An activity system is defined as the interaction between learners and tools to achieve an outcome. Tensions among these elements can promote change, create knowledge, and lead to new activity patterns.1 After interviewing students in a series of focus groups, researchers identified five tensions:

  1. Misinterpretation of WBA Feedback as Summative Assessment. Although WBAs were intended to serve formative purposes, first-year students perceived the object, or purpose, of the WBA to be for summative purposes. Formative assessments are intended to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback to improve teaching and learning. More specifically, formative assessments help students identify strengths and weaknesses. This allows students to target areas of improvement and help faculty pinpoint areas where students are struggling to provide assistance.3 On the other hand, the goal of summative assessments is to evaluate student learning at the end of a rotation and are often high stakes, resulting in the assignment of a grade or score. Even when second-year students correctly identified the purpose of WBAs as low-stakes feedback, students were still concerned that this feedback would be used to inform summative assessments and strategically chose to use WBAs when they anticipated positive feedback instead of opportunities for constructive feedback. Two ways to enhance the distinction between summative and formative evaluations in WBAs are to use two different platforms to complete WBAs and summative assessments and allow students to self-complete WBAs.1
  2. Cumbersome Tool Design that Delayed Feedback. WBA requests were sent via computer, so many of these requests were sent hours after feedback encounters. Students found that the distribution and completion of WBAs were delayed, which resulted in generic or untimely feedback. Utilizing QR codes on smart phones and improvements in technology facilitated supervisor engagement and rapid feedback.1
  3. Concern About Burdening Supervisors with WBA Tasks. While clerkship leaders encouraged students to seek feedback, students were concerned about interrupting workflow or interfering with patient care. Students found the assessments to be labor-intensive and redundant. Students employed strategies to streamline the process, such as recording and submitting comments that preceptors provided during the encounter with the WBA request form, which made it easier for preceptors to complete the assessments.1
  4. WBA Requirement as Checking Boxes vs. Learning Opportunity. The weekly quota of completion of two WBAs overshadowed the purpose of WBAs as a formative feedback mechanism. The authenticity and usefulness of the feedback could be jeopardized when students and supervisors focus on the rule instead of the opportunity to provide feedback. On the other hand, some students reframed this requirement to benefit them. One benefit of the requirement included the ability for students to direct their learning to meet self-identified goals and receive timely feedback to ensure that they were making progress toward achieving these goals. Another benefit of the rule was to initiate consistent feedback discussions with preceptors who did not volunteer to provide feedback.1
  5. WBA Within Clerkship-Specific Learning Culture. Supervisors’ promotion and acceptance of WBAs ultimately set the tone for WBA encounters. Students found that preceptors that actively facilitated WBA encounters provided more useful feedback, while preceptors that gave pushback created a barrier. In addition to using more convenient platforms to complete WBAs, students identified more convenient situations, logged feedback retrospectively, and bypassed tool discussion to minimize the burden on team members in settings that were not conducive to WBAs.1

In competitive cultures like medicine, it can be difficult to facilitate formative assessments. The author concluded that by incorporating learner input to make intentional changes, perceptions and utilization of WBAs can be enhanced.1

The authors provided potential solutions to the perceived problems with WBAs. There is often a disconnect between the intention and interpretation of workplace-based assessments.  Thus, we need to consider structuring their format and delivery by gathering student feedback. Through this collaboration with students, we can strive to achieve authentic workplace-based assessments that accurately reflect learners’ progress and are used to improve future performance.

While this study focused on the benefits of WBAs in student-preceptor interactions at one medical school, WBAs can be used in several ways. WBAs can be applied across multiple settings and can be separated into three different categories: observation of clinical performance, discussion of clinical cases, and feedback from peers, coworkers, and patients. These assessment tools provide insight to the trainee, assessor, and academics alike.2

In addition to getting student feedback, I believe we need to gather feedback from preceptors to determine their perceptions of WBAs. Thus, WBAs could be further improved to meet the needs of both students and preceptors. To ensure that we are providing useful and timely feedback to learners, its important to reduce the barriers to WBA use. By using QR codes, separate platforms to differentiate summative and formative assessments, and platforms that are compatible with smartphones when computers are not available, schools can establish user-friendly and time-efficient processes and ensure that WBAs that are valuable without adding substantial burden that jeopardize feedback quality.1


  1. Phinney, LB, Fluet A, O’Brien BC, Seligman L, Hauer KE. Beyond checking boxes: Exploring tensions with use of a workplace-based assessment tool for formative assessment in clerkships. Acad Med 2022; 97: 1511-1520.
  2. Guraya, SY. Workplace-based assessment; Applications and educational impact. Malays J Med Sci 2015; 22: 5-10.
  3. Formative vs. Summative Assessment [Internet]. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University; [cited 2022 Nov 18].

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