How can we make sure professional discussions are valid in end-point assessments?

11 Jul 2022, 9:00

Professional discussion can play a valuable role in student assessment but only if used carefully, explains Paul Kelly

Essentially a two-way conversation between an assessor and a candidate, professional discussion is often used as part of end-point assessment (EPA) for apprenticeships.

Taking the style of an interview, the assessor asks an apprentice a series of set questions as a means of building a clearer picture of the depth of an apprentice’s understanding.

The assessment takes place in timed conditions, with specific criteria to meet and, in some cases, the apprentice’s portfolio is referred to.

Often, the apprentice isn’t familiar with the assessor, which can prove daunting in an interview scenario.

There’s no invigilator present, and the independent assessor is responsible for managing the process, including the timings and making sure the apprentice knows how much time is left.

Time restrictions are strict to ensure fair assessment for all apprentices, so it’s important the candidate provides sufficient detail in the timeframe they have. While the timescale will vary according to an apprentice’s level, interviews are usually between 30 and 90 minutes in length.

Professional discussion assessments are often used alongside other methods, such as observations or a written portfolio, and are becoming an increasingly popular way to help grade technical and vocational qualifications.

But the very nature of a conversation-based assessment leaves it open to questions of validity, particularly when compared to more formal methods. So how can we protect validity in a two-way discussion?

Firstly, as the flow of a conversation can vary greatly between different people, assessors must be self-aware and mitigate potential for bias, unconscious or otherwise. It’s vital to take a consistent approach, sticking to the same set of questions and resisting any urge to prompt or support students with their answers.

Similarly, when it comes to grading, there are frameworks in place that can guide an assessor on levels of achievement.

For instance, apprentices who offer examples of their knowledge and skills in a factual manner would receive a lower level, while those with a higher level would have demonstrated a broad range of theoretical and technical knowledge through their skills in practice.

These frameworks help guide assessors in awarding a level that best reflects the understanding demonstrated through the interview.

As well as any potential bias on an assessor’s part, various factors can influence an apprentice’s performance in an interview scenario. One of the most common is nerves.

Feeling nervous can easily prevent a student from fully engaging in the process and therefore holding back from showing just how much they understand.

This is why it’s crucial to give apprentices plenty of opportunities to practise so those who feel nervous aren’t at a disadvantage compared to their more confident peers. This includes the opportunity to listen back to review their performance.

Teachers can also help by sharing straightforward information about the nature and purpose of the assessment, including resources and guides on professional discussion. They can also remind apprentices that it’s not an interrogation, but an opportunity to show how much they know.

One of the most common issues is nerves

For their part, assessors must take steps to help put nervous apprentices at ease, such as listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to what’s being said.

Factors such as attention, memory and use of language can also greatly impact a student’s performance. For some, not having to express their thoughts in writing might be beneficial. But for others, missing the chance to revisit their answers as they would in a written assessment could hamper their performance.

So, while it’s important to protect validity through a consistent approach, the varying needs of individual apprentices means some will require a different kind of interaction.

As professional discussion assessments come to play a bigger part in apprenticeship assessment, supporting everyone to involved is key to safeguarding validity. That means sticking to clear guidance for assessors and for students to have the support they need to prepare.

While interview-style assessment may seem daunting for students, it can provide a useful means of demonstrating their skills and understanding in a different way. But it must be used correctly.



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  1. Phillip Hatton

    Professional discussion has been a much used assessment tool in HE for many years. My biggest concern is using it for the sake of using it. It needs to be a L3 and above tool and IfATE should not be trying to implement it in L2 practical subjects, where it is better to use Q&A as part of observing practical technical skills assessments. I have spoken to several end point assessors who are very unsure of how to conduct discussions and feel untrained to do so. As providers cannot observe how they are being conducted they have limited recourse to appealing against a poorly conducted process. So far little in the way of training is being made available to providers in order to better prepare there apprentices. We are all reliant on the quality being assured by the non-independent parties delivering the assessment with any actions coming in being retrospective.