Changing how we assess students will transform medical education

Something I often see at the conferences I attend throughout the year, is the recurring view that “technology will transform medical education… but it’s just over the horizon”. Technology already plays a big role in shaping the future of medical education, but it has been much more an evolution in existing practices than a revolution.

We all remember the great teachers in our lives, who helped us to progress from a novice, through apprenticeship, to a state of mastery where we were able to chart our own independent course. Great teachers use a variety of different tools to help students on their way and technology is one of those tools. A great teacher understands that each student has their own specific individual needs, yet teachers do not always have the time and resources available to provide each student with the tailored support they require. Now, with the aid of technology, we are able to generate more and more data that teachers can use judiciously to help guide their students on their way.

We are at the beginning of this shift in medical education, and as we better understand the data we need to collect in order to improve medical education, we will be able to improve the quality of teaching and learning to produce even better doctors. To me, the growing importance given to formative assessment alongside summative will help drive this major change in education.

There is a recognition that there are many types of data that we can and should be collecting at different points in a student’s education. However, we are overly dependent on summative assessment data to evaluate learning at set points in the curriculum. A shift is important; to measure what makes a successful and fully-rounded doctor, we can’t rely on the traditional methods anymore. We need to create a balance between summative assessment and an array of formative assessments. Such an approach will give us clearer actionable insights into what students learn, how they learn, what they have learnt and whether they understand what they’ve learnt.

This positions us at a very exciting time: the beginning of a global shift. Finding better ways to do formative assessment will grow medicals schools’ understanding of how students learn. As that feeds into their curriculum and develops their expertise in different teaching methodologies, incoming students will begin to understand which schools best suit their ambitions of becoming doctors.

For example, it may be that one school has an emphasis on highly academic and research-based skills, another school focuses on further developing and honing vital skills such as empathy in clinical practice. Through such an approach, the distinction between medical schools will become less based on traditional rankings and a greater level of holistic education can be achieved in medicine.

I am excited by the increased attention to different assessment formats which is being undertaken with the necessary balance between content and educational elements. The progress will not be instantaneous, but the quality of medical education is too important for its evolution to be based on a 30-minute brainstorm. These things take a long time, and they have to be evidence-based, and they require people to think broadly.


David Game
eProduct Director, Education EMEALAAP, Elsevier

David has spent the last sixteen years in e-product development and management in the higher education sector. Prior to working at Elsevier, David managed the Mastering platform, an innovative adaptive higher education science learning and assessment platform.

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