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Types of exams and assessments in medical school

By Zahra Almansoor

There are 2 main types of assessment that UK medical schools use: formative and summative. Formative ones are more for self-assessment purposes and so students do not pass or fail, but rather get a review of how they are performing- in essence the grades don’t count. Summative ones are the opposite- these grades get counted and you get a pass or fail. Each medical school puts a different emphasis on how they choose to use both types of assessment, so when applying don’t forget to check up on this and choose medical schools whose assessment type best suits you!

Across the span of UK medical schools an overwhelming range of assessment methods exist including: OSCE’s (Objective Structured Clinical examinations), portfolios, MCQ’s (multiple choice questions), essay questions, student projects and direct observation of procedural skills. It’s important to remember that not all medical schools choose to include all of them in their programmes and often some are included early on only to get replaced by other types once in clinical years. In this article some of the main ones will be discussed.

OSCE’s; these pesky exams have gained quite the reputation amongst the medical student community (not in a good way!) They are unanimously used across medical schools, so sorry but not escaping! They take a similar format to MMI style interviews, and normally consist of around eight 6-8-minute stations. In each station an examiner will observe you completing a task, common ones include doing a physical examination, taking a history and interpreting sets of data in order to reach a diagnosis. In reality the OSCE’s, although nerve wracking, are also quite a fun challenge and as long as you practice beforehand you will be fine!

MCQ style questions like the name suggests, normally consist of 5 different answer options for each question. Often there are 3 choices which you can eliminate straight away but choosing between the last two can sometimes be a challenge (especially if you’ve been blessed with the indecisive gene). A simple trick which seems to work is to always go with your first choice. We’ve all been there at the end of an exam changing all our answers, but with MCQs this really isn’t the best strategy.

Student projects often involve choosing a topic of interest or being allocated one and then spending a few weeks researching it. It is a great opportunity to improve on your writing skills and research technique and you really do become extremely knowledgeable in specific areas. The depth and breadth of knowledge is assessed as well as your ability to analyse scientific papers.

Direct observation of procedural skills is mainly done during clinical years. As part of the GMC requirements there are a list of procedural skills that need to be mastered including: taking bloods, cannulation and catherization. Each medical school takes a different approach but commonly during placements if the opportunity presents itself, students can ask for a qualified person to assess them and then sign them off as having been competent.

Portfolios are designed to give students an opportunity to complete written reflections on their professional and personal goals and how they are performing, in order to reach those goals. These are often assessed throughout the medical school journey and it can be really rewarding looking back over the years and seeing how much you have progressed!

Long essay style questions are also as the name suggests- about writing essays relating to scientific topics. They are most commonly assessed in pre-clinical years as they often involve writing about the scientific concepts underlying medicine, rather than about diseases and their management. These are a great opportunity to really learn the nitty gritty of science and the writing aspect makes a nice change from all the clinical cases you will see as you move further up in medical school.

There you have it- a concise guide of some of the most popular assessment methods. The thought of them may seem daunting but with preparation and practice they are very manageable, and the medical schools are really fair in how they standardise all the grades across their students, to give you the very best chance of passing.

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