Open Access Research article

Joining the dots: Conditional pass and programmatic assessment enhances recognition of problems with professionalism and factors hampering student progress

Tim J Wilkinson1*, Mike J Tweed2, Tony G Egan3, Anthony N Ali4, Jan M McKenzie4, MaryLeigh Moore4 and Joy R Rudland3

Author Affiliations

1 University of Otago, Christchurch, C/- The Princess Margaret Hospital, PO Box 800, Christchurch, New Zealand

2 Medical Education Unit, University of Otago, Wellington, PO Box 7343, Wellington 6242, New Zealand

3 Faculty Education Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

4 Medical Education Unit, University of Otago, Christchurch, PO Box 4345, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand

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BMC Medical Education 2011, 11:29  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-11-29

Published: 7 June 2011



Programmatic assessment that looks across a whole year may contribute to better decisions compared with those made from isolated assessments alone. The aim of this study is to describe and evaluate a programmatic system to handle student assessment results that is aligned not only with learning and remediation, but also with defensibility. The key components are standards based assessments, use of "Conditional Pass", and regular progress meetings.


The new assessment system is described. The evaluation is based on years 4-6 of a 6-year medical course. The types of concerns staff had about students were clustered into themes alongside any interventions and outcomes for the students concerned. The likelihoods of passing the year according to type of problem were compared before and after phasing in of the new assessment system.


The new system was phased in over four years. In the fourth year of implementation 701 students had 3539 assessment results, of which 4.1% were Conditional Pass. More in-depth analysis for 1516 results available from 447 students revealed the odds ratio (95% confidence intervals) for failure was highest for students with problems identified in more than one part of the course (18.8 (7.7-46.2) p < 0.0001) or with problems with professionalism (17.2 (9.1-33.3) p < 0.0001). The odds ratio for failure was lowest for problems with assignments (0.7 (0.1-5.2) NS). Compared with the previous system, more students failed the year under the new system on the basis of performance during the year (20 or 4.5% compared with four or 1.1% under the previous system (p < 0.01)).


The new system detects more students in difficulty and has resulted in less "failure to fail". The requirement to state conditions required to pass has contributed to a paper trail that should improve defensibility. Most importantly it has helped detect and act on some of the more difficult areas to assess such as professionalism.

Assessment; Professionalism; Monitoring progress; Feedback