Assessing Practical Science Skills | The Campus Learn, share, connect

As a science teacher, you have likely experienced the challenges of developing hands-on laboratory lessons that are engaging, novel, accessible, relevant, sustainable, and effective. The days of long hands-on classes are over at many institutions, especially when budgets are tight, technical support staff are minimal, space is limited, and student numbers are growing. There is also the question of whether many hands-on lab sessions are fit for purpose: what skills are they actually assessing? Are these the lab techniques we want students to learn, or are we more concerned with completing a formulated lab report or series of questions to give us something familiar to assess? We need to ask ourselves if we are only assessing technical competencies in these lab hours and not “softer” graduate skills that could improve 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 professions. Many clinical programs have used the Objective Structured Clinical or Practical Examination (OSCE/OSPE) format to assess the skills, attributes and competencies of their students. Such assessments focus on skills or qualities, not just on the tasks a student performs. These include multiple lesson stations where the student must complete a task in order to demonstrate specific skills or competencies. Student performance is assessed using clearly defined, consistent assessment criteria for each station. We don’t tend to use this assessment method much in science, but it might be worth a try when we’re looking to develop more authentic assessments.

Where should I start from?

When considering the introduction of OSPE-style assessment, the key thing is to ask ourselves: what are the skills we actually want to assess? It is easy for educators to focus solely on a laboratory procedure or technique rather than actual skills, e.g. “We’re just going to have them do a western blot” without them being clear about what doing a western blot means is important and worth evaluating. The skills you want to assess will vary, but may include some of the following:

  • Solving a problem
  • Numerical skills
  • Dealing with difficult situations
  • Health and safety
  • Leadership skills
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Time management
  • Interviewing skills
  • Ethics/Professionalism
  • Interpretation of text, graphics, images, data
  • Language skills

Once you have an idea of ​​what skills you want to assess, tasks can be developed to serve as a platform for assessing those competencies. If you have healthcare colleagues at your institution, it may be worth seeking their advice and learning from their experience. They can act as critical friends during the development process.

How do learners and educators benefit from OSPE-style assessment?

The OSPE assessment can help learners 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 work situations and this can be useful when aiming for more authentic assessments. Students are motivated to succeed, there is greater objectivity in assessment and they can test a wide range of skills. Performance of the OSPE may provide better evidence to be used when commenting on certain skills and attributes when writing references or when providing targeted academic support to learners.

Top tips for OSPE planning

1. Your students. Who are they? How many of them are there? Do they have specific needs, requirements, training regimen, etc.?

2. Why are you doing this?What skills or qualities 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 opinions of others?

3. Logistics.Place and time – wet lab? Clinical area? A sports facility? Multipurpose area? Remote, eg field work? A computer room? 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, assessment time? Equipment – ​​availability, cost, fast lab turnaround or equipment needed?

5. Planning issues.What will you do if there are spills, breakages, power outages, fire alarms, IT problems, etc. during your OSPE?

6. Illness or absence.What are the arrangements if staff or students are ill and unable to attend?

7. Nature of the assessment.What should students do to demonstrate that they have acquired the necessary skills? This should be clear to all students and staff, and the criteria should be published in advance. Will you be using technology or paper feeds?

8. What if it works?How do you scale, expand to different disciplines, groups of students or staff, or different locations? How will you measure and disseminate the success of OSPE?

We hope these ideas will help you develop an OSPE to meet the needs of your learners. Parts of 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 risk and trying out this assessment methodology benefits both you and your students.

Derek Scott is Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology 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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