Exploring complexities in the reform of assessment practice: a critical realist perspective

Chris Roberts, Priya Khanna, Andrew Stuart Lane, Peter Reimann, Lambert Schuwirth

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    Although the principles behind assessment for and as learning are well-established, there can be a struggle when reforming traditional assessment of learning to a program which encompasses assessment for and as learning. When introducing and reporting reforms, tensions in faculty may arise because of differing beliefs about the relationship between assessment and learning and the rules for the validity of assessments. Traditional systems of assessment of learning privilege objective, structured quantification of learners’ performances, and are done to the students. Newer systems of assessment promote assessment for learning, emphasise subjectivity, collate data from multiple sources, emphasise narrative-rich feedback to promote learner agency, and are done with the students. This contrast has implications for implementation and evaluative research. Research of assessment which is done to students typically asks, “what works”, whereas assessment that is done with the students focuses on more complex questions such as “what works, for whom, in which context, and why?” We applied such a critical realist perspective drawing on the interplay between structure and agency, and a systems approach to explore what theory says about introducing programmatic assessment in the context of pre-existing traditional approaches. Using a reflective technique, the internal conversation, we developed four factors that can assist educators considering major change to assessment practice in their own contexts. These include enabling positive learner agency and engagement; establishing argument-based validity frameworks; designing purposeful and eclectic evidence-based assessment tasks; and developing a shared narrative that promotes reflexivity in appreciating the complex relationships between assessment and learning.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1641-1657
    Number of pages17
    JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
    Issue number5
    Early online date24 Aug 2021
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


    • Assessment reform
    • Clinical competence
    • Critical realism
    • Programmatic assessment
    • Structure and agency


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