Hong Kong Med J 2024 Jun;30(3):250–4 | Epub 3 Jun 2024
© Hong Kong Academy of Medicine. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Workplace-based assessments: what, why, and how to implement?
HY So, FHKCA, FHKCA (IC); YF Choi, FHKEM; PT Chan, FHKCOS; Albert KM Chan, FHKCA, FANZCA; George WY Ng, FHKCP; George KC Wong, MD, FCSHK
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Innovative Learning Centre for Medicine, Hong Kong Academy of Medicine, Hong Kong SAR, China
Corresponding author: Prof George KC Wong (georgewong@fellow.hkam.hk)
 Full paper in PDF
Assessments in postgraduate medical education have undergone significant changes over the past few decades.1 We are more familiar with assessment methods that assess the ‘knows’, ‘knows how’, and ‘shows’ levels of Miller’s pyramid, also known as ‘assessment of competence’ (online supplementary Fig).2 3 These methods emphasise objectivity through standardisation and by minimising the role of human judgement.
However, in the 1990s, several factors led to a shift in thinking. First, it was recognised that assessment methods prioritising objectivity (rather than professional judgement) can oversimplify complex skills, diminishing the true value of the assessment.4 It was also understood that clinical encounters are ‘context-specific’, and that competency lies in doctors’ abilities to adapt and respond to the various circumstances they encounter.5 ‘Assessments of competence’ conducted in controlled settings have weak correlations with doctors’ actual practices in real clinical settings.2 Furthermore, the introduction of competency-based medical education has highlighted the importance of skills such as communication, collaboration, and professionalism, which are not easily quantifiable.6 These factors indicate a need to return assessments to the clinical environment. Additionally, educators have found that excessively focusing on objectivity and quantitative results for summative purposes can cause students to prioritise succeeding in the assessments, rather than learning to become good clinicians. It is important to address the impact of assessments on learning by involving learners as active participants and providing them with meaningful feedback.7 The current consensus is that expert judgement should be recognised and respected during the assessment process.8
Workplace-based assessments (WBAs) involve the assessment of day-to-day practices within the working environment.9 They represent a form of ‘assessment of performance’ which evaluates doctors’ actual professional practices.2 3 These types of assessments can include direct observation of clinical procedures and patient management, or retrospective presentation of cases. Each assessment is followed by guided reflection to identify possible learning points. Action plans should be formulated and subsequently carried out. Various WBA tools have been defined, and tools currently in use by our Colleges are summarised in online supplementary Table 1.10
An integrated set of WBAs can be designed primarily for learning enhancement (formative) or performance evaluation (summative). The design of the WBAs should be aligned with their intended purpose. The use of WBAs as formative assessments may have more learning benefits compared with their use as summative assessments alone, or their use as combined assessments.11 Confusion surrounding the purposes of WBAs is a common obstacle hindering effective implementation among trainers and trainees. The Table provides a summary of the features of WBAs as formative assessments in comparison with traditional summative assessments.12

Table. Comparison of workplace-based assessments and conventional summative assessments12
Confusion about the purposes of WBAs can lead to misconceptions, such as the use of psychometric criteria of validity and reliability to evaluate WBAs. The validity of WBAs is primarily supported by their authenticity.8 Additionally, the validity of WBAs as a formative assessment relies on high-quality feedback from trainers and feedback literacy among trainees.13 14
Because WBAs are non-standardised assessments, factors such as case selection, context restriction, and rater cognition can influence inter-rater variability. There are three sources of variability related to rater cognition.15 First, trainers may fail to correctly apply assessment criteria. Training for the trainers can reduce this source of variability. Second, variability can arise from limitations in human cognition, leading to various forms of bias. Efforts to understand the impacts of cognitive influences and use cognitive tools can help address this variability. Finally, competence is a complex phenomenon; different trainers may focus on unique aspects that actually are complementary. This ‘meaningful idiosyncrasy’ is not considered problematic—it represents a strength of this form of assessment. When WBAs are used for formative purposes, reliability is not a major concern; when they are used for summative purposes, reliability should be considered.8 The main determinant of reliability in all types of assessments is sample size, rather than ‘objectivity’. Therefore, it is important to ensure that each trainer conducts an adequate number of assessments.16
To address the challenges of integrating assessments into the clinical environment, we used the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (Fig17) for categorisation of issues identified in the existing literature and in the results of a Younger Fellows Chapter survey conducted at the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine Medical Education Conference 2021 (online supplementary Table 2).18 19 20 21 22 Based on these identified issues and recommendations from the Ottawa Conference 2020, we propose the following implementation framework.8

Figure. Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research17
Design workplace-based assessments according to their intended purposes
Because WBAs are most beneficial as formative assessments, the focus should be on designs that maximise their impacts on learning.8 It is crucial to involve both trainers and trainees in the design process; this ensures that their input is incorporated.18 The WBA tools should be user-friendly and utilise simple language.18 20 Although the application of a checklist to facilitate identification of specific feedback may be helpful, the checklist should not be overly burdensome.20 The use of digital technology for documentation can improve accessibility to WBA tools and enable data collection for learning analytics.12 19 Assessments should focus on narrative feedback instead of rating scales or scores. Whenever possible, the decision at the end of each WBA should be based on narrative comments that aid learning, rather than a pass/fail decision, to avoid the ‘failure-to-fail’ phenomenon.8
Work structure is also important. Trainees often rotate through multiple wards or hospitals, resulting in short and constantly changing relationships with their trainers. This can make it difficult for supervisors to assess a trainee’s performance because there is a lack of familiarity. It is challenging but crucial to foster longitudinal and trusting relationships between trainees and trainers, such as by prolonging trainees’ rotations or assigning them specific trainers for longer periods of time.8 20 21 22
Engage and empower trainers
The effectiveness of WBAs is greatly influenced by trainers’ knowledge and understanding of how to conduct assessments and provide feedback to trainees.19 20 21 Attainment of this knowledge and understanding requires trainers to familiarise themselves with relevant assessment tools and engage in medical education, which is currently not included in most Colleges’ fellowship training programmes. Trainers’ willingness to engage in WBAs is affected by organisational culture and the value placed on teaching and feedback. A lack of understanding regarding WBAs can also lead to a lack of engagement.19 20 Therefore, all trainers involved in WBA should be required to receive training focused on conducting assessments and understanding the rationale behind them.19
The quality of trainer feedback is crucial for effective learning and for trainees to recognise the value of WBAs. Trainers must be skilled in providing feedback.18 19 20 They should also ensure that the tasks selected for assessments are appropriate for each trainee’s level of experience and competence.19 To address these issues, the Hong Kong Jockey Club Innovative Learning Centre for Medicine (HKJC ILCM) has developed Train-the-Trainer WBA Courses in collaboration with various Colleges.
Engage and empower trainees
If the purposes of WBAs are not clear during implementation, the tools may be used ineffectively; trainees may cynically view the assessments as a ‘reductive “tick-box”’ approach to evaluating the complexities of professional behaviour. Trainees should also understand that WBAs are designed for formative purposes, not summative purposes; the perception that WBAs serve as summative assessments may encourage learners to adopt strategic and undesirable behaviours, such as avoiding discussion of challenging patient cases or seeking lenient assessors.18 19 Therefore, it is equally important to engage trainees by explaining the purposes and uses of WBAs.18 19 The HKJC ILCM has piloted a WBA Trainee Course to improve trainees’ feedback literacy and to promote a growth mindset and self-regulated learning.14 20
Evaluate the implementation process
Given that WBAs are considered an ever-evolving approach, it is essential for Colleges to establish mechanisms for regular evaluation of the implementation process to ensure that the WBAs remain relevant and effective.23
Resolve the issue of time constraints
Numerous studies have consistently highlighted the challenge of allocating sufficient time for trainees and trainers to integrate WBAs into their daily routines.18 19 20 21 According to information from informal communication with different Colleges, most local surveys showed that debriefing sessions ranged from 10 to 20 minutes per WBA. Recognising this challenge, the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine emphasised the importance of ongoing discussions and collaborative efforts among various parties to address the resource implications of WBA implementation in its recent position paper concerning postgraduate medical education.23 Additionally, resource allocation is influenced by organisational culture and the value placed on teaching and feedback.20 21
The way forward
We have discussed how assessments in medical education evolved from a measurement role to a judgement role. Another paradigm shift, which began in around 2010, has led to the perception of assessments as systems.1 Medical education requires multiple cognitive, psychomotor, and attitudinal/relational skills. Because no single assessment method can capture all of these skills, multiple measures are necessary. However, if these assessments are applied in an uncoordinated manner and combined to reach an overall decision based on traditional weighting, they cannot effectively reflect a trainee’s competence. An assessment system should integrate and combine single assessments to meet the diverse needs of various stakeholders.24 Therefore, each single WBA tool should be part of an integrated, coherent set of WBAs; this set of WBAs should be embedded in a broader assessment system.8 Attention should be given to the criteria for creating effective assessment systems.24 Programmatic assessment, a logical approach for building such systems,8 25 is based on the principle that each assessment method or tool has limitations; compromises are needed if individual assessments alone are used for pass/fail decisions. A contrasting perspective is that each assessment should be regarded as a single data point and optimised for learning by providing meaningful feedback to the learner. Pass/fail and high-stakes decisions should be made in a credible and transparent manner, using multiple data points in a holistic approach.25
There are several unresolved issues regarding WBAs that warrant further investigation.8 18 These include inquiries into the effectiveness of individual WBA tools at various levels of training, the potential extension of WBAs into continuing professional development, and the use of WBAs to assess complex outcomes and competencies (eg, teamwork). Additionally, there is need to identify the optimal method for synthesising WBA results that can support informed decisions and promote learning. It is also worth exploring whether a programmatic approach to WBAs could enhance their learning effects. Considering the context-specific nature of educational interventions, the HKJC ILCM should collaborate with College fellows to conduct local investigations that address these questions.
Author contributions
All authors contributed to the concept or design, acquisition of data, analysis or interpretation of data, drafting of the manuscript, and critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content. All authors had full access to the data, contributed to the study, approved the final version for publication, and take responsibility for its accuracy and integrity.
Conflicts of interest
All authors have disclosed no conflicts of interest.
This commentary received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
Supplementary material
The supplementary material was provided by the authors and some information may not have been peer reviewed. Accepted supplementary material will be published as submitted by the authors, without any editing or formatting. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine and the Hong Kong Medical Association. The Hong Kong Academy of Medicine and the Hong Kong Medical Association disclaim all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content.
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