Self-Assessment in the Health Professions: A Reformulation and Research Agenda

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Many researchers and educators have identified self-assessment as a vital aspect of professional self-regulation.1,2,3 This rationale has been the expressed motivation for a large number of studies of self-assessment ability in medical education, health professional education, and professions education generally. Unfortunately, the outcome of most studies would seem to cast doubt on the capacity for self-assessment, with the majority of authors concluding that self-assessment is, in fact, quite poor.4 In a recent article, Ward and colleagues suggested that this conclusion must be questioned because the methodologies used to evaluate self-assessment are fraught with methodological weaknesses.4 However, even studies that have attempted to address the weaknesses within the methodological paradigm have produced little evidence for effective self-assessment.5 Thus, the health professional education community is left with a conundrum that can only be resolved by deciding either that the conclusions of the studies are wrong, or that a critical premise underlying the concept of “self-regulation” in the professions is unsupportable.The current paper addresses this conundrum by arguing that there is a problem with the literature on self-assessment, and that this problem is more fundamental than a list of easily correctable methodological flaws. Rather, the roots of the problem in the self-assessment literature involve a failure to effectively conceptualize the nature of self-assessment in the daily practice of health care professionals, and a failure to properly explicate the role of self-assessment in a self-regulating profession. Until such an articulation of self-assessment is elaborated, it is difficult to know even which literatures might be informative in addressing this issue, and impossible to develop programs of research that operationalize the concept of self-assessment ability in a form that can be effectively studied. Thus, we will begin with a brief reflection on the various functions of self-assessment for a practicing health care professional and the manner in which these functions operate.The Purposes of Self-Assessment in PracticeSelf-assessment has been defined broadly as the involvement of learners in judging whether or not learner-identified standards have been met.6 While attractive due to their concise and encompassing nature, we fear that such simple definitions risk being misleading as they can cause underappreciation of the complexities of the construct. Self-assessment functions both as a mechanism for identifying one’s weaknesses and as a mechanism for identifying one’s strengths. Each of these mechanisms can be considered to have distinct, albeit complementary, functions. As a mechanism for identifying weaknesses or gaps in one’s skills and abilities, self-assessment serves several potential functions. First, in daily practice, the identification of one’s weaknesses allows the professional to self-limit in areas of limited competence. For example, in many circumstances the professional can quickly reject certain plans of action because she recognizes that she is unlikely to be able to complete the component tasks necessary to enact the plan. In other circumstances, a professional might recognize that he is “over his head” in a particular case and decide that it is time to recruit additional resources: to “look this up,” to obtain a consultation, to recruit additional support, or to refer the problem to another individual who is more competent in this domain. Second, in reflecting on one’s practice in general, the ability to identify weaknesses can serve the function of helping the professional set appropriate learning goals. That is, the traditional model of self-regulated continuing professional development presumes that an individual will select ongoing learning activities that fill professional gaps, but this presumes that the professional can effectively self-assess. Thus, in this role, the identification of weakness can help a professional to decide what must be learned.

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