Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 908-911
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Impact of a Practical Skills Assessment on the Individual
Engagement of Undergraduate Pharmacy Students within
Laboratory Coursework Sessions
Susanne P. Boyle
School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotlan d
Received September 4th, 2012; revised October 2nd, 2012; accepted October 18th, 2012
This study reports on the learner impact, practicability and cost effectiveness of an individual practical
skills test designed to assess the interpretative and manipulative skills of undergraduate pharmacy in a
laboratory setting. The reliability of the assessment tool across a 5 year period was examined and refine-
ments introduced in response to constructive feedback from colleagues and learner feedback recorded via
end of year Student Evaluation Questionnaires. A blended learning strategy supported the needs of multi-
ple learning styles and inclusion of a formative assessment increased student confidence and improved
cohort performance in the summative assessment. Future directions include the introduction of a peer
learning activity as a means of reducing group sizes and providing an opportunity for the learners to de-
velop skills in constructive critique and reflective learning.
Keywords: Practical Skills Assessment; MPharm Degree; Formative Assessment; Peer Learning
The Scottish MPharm Degree
In Scotland the undergraduate pharmacy degree is a 4 year
undergraduate Master’s degree (QAA, 2002) accredited by the
General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC). The curriculum de-
veloped across the four years addresses core modules in phar-
maceutical sciences including medicinal chemistry, pharma-
cognosy, pharmaceutical analysis, biochemistry, pharmaceuti-
cal microbiology, sterile products and medicine design and
manufacture together with professional modules such as pre-
scribing sciences, pharmacy practice, social pharmacy, public
health and pharmaceutical care.
The GPhC standards for the initial education and training of
pharmacists (GPhC, 2011) advises that the “curricula must be
progressive, dealing with issues in an increasingly more com-
plex way until the right level of understanding is reached”
(Harden & Stamper, 2009), is underpinned by appropriate as-
sessment strategies and provides opportunities reflection and
peer learning. The philosophy of the GPhC standards (GPhC,
2011) is driven by a testing of 4 levels of competency defined
in Miller’s triangle (1990) and which describes four levels of
assessment: knows; knows how; shows how (competence); and
does (performance) (Figure 1).
A popular degree choice for undergraduate students, each
Stage of the MPharm degree has typically between 130 - 140
full time students enrolled and such large classes are the main
driver for a group approach (typically 4 - 5 students) being
adopted in practical coursework sessions.
Modes of Assessment in Pharmaceutical
Science Modules
It is widely recognized that the mode of assessment may in-
fluence the behavior of student learners (Biggs, 2003) but
equally issues of class sizes and staff resources are sometimes
constraints to the implementation of the ideal scenario. In the
early years of the MPharm degree most modules have a mini-
mum of two components of assessment aligned to the lecture
material (e.g. written exam) and the laboratory coursework
sessions for which there are a variety of assessment strategies in
Biochemistry is a Stage 2 (Scottish Credit Qualification
Framework level 8) degree module and forms the foundations
for Stage 3 modules such as Biotherapeutics and Pharmaceuti-
cal Analysis both of which require students to be numerate,
competent in the handling of micropipettes and construction of
calibration lines and confident in their ability to interpret and
evaluate experimental data. Historically the assessment of the
Biochemistry coursework sessions has been by an individual
written test and an individual laboratory report. The advantages
of this approach were that it enabled the assessment of core
knowledge and evaluative skills required for later Stages of the
degree including e.g. the preparation of a final year thesis. The
disadvantages were that it gave no measure of a student’s com-
petency within a laboratory setting and there was little incentive
for students to contribute individually to the group coursework
activity since by sharing the data generated as a group, indi-
viduals could produce satisfactory submissions without neces-
sarily having contributed effectively to the laboratory practi-
Student feedback via the Student Evaluation Questionnaire
(SEQ), consideration of staff resources required to mark and
feedback on the two written assessments together with personal
concerns regarding the inability of some students to compe-
tently handle micropipettes and manipulate calibration curves
were the drivers for change. This led to the design, implemen-
tation and review of an individual practical skills test as a
means of assessing the manipulative and interpretative skills of
Stage 2 MPharm students undertaking Biochemistry coursework
Design and Operation of the Practical Skills Test
The five core skills assessed via the practical skills test were
1) accurate and precise use of micropipettes,
2) calculation of dilutions and preparation of calibration stan-
3) accurate representation of data using a graph,
4) use of a UV spectrophotometer,
5) evaluation of the accuracy and precision of experimental
The core skills were assessed via 3 independent workstation
activities each of 12 minutes duration. Workstation 2 assesses
core skill 3 and requires students to construct calibration lines
and interpolate unknowns using exemplar data. Workstation 1
assessed core skills 1, 2 and 4 whilst workstation 3 assessed
core skills 1, 2, 4 and 5. A round robin rotation was employed
with 4 students simultaneously undertaking each of the 3 skills
assessments. Thus 12 students complete the summative as-
sessment in each 45 minute cycle and 5 staff was involved in
the observation, marking and timing of the assessment. Post
assessment the markers complete a prescriptive marking pro
forma which details how effectively the student has performed
key elements of the task. This approach enables students to
receive individual written feedback on their summative assess-
ment and critically has significantly reduced the time (approx.
30% decreases since 2007) assessors commit to this marking
this component.
Appreciative of the stress that some learners experience in in-
dividual skills based assessments and mindful of the potential
benefits that formative assessment and feedback affords (Black
& William, 1998; Dunn & Mulvenon, 2009), the students have
a formative assessment opportunity one week before the sum-
mative event. Since it is recognized that students may readily
practice their skills in graphical analysis outwith the laboratory
environment the formative exercise focuses on other ex-
perimental activities designed to evaluate core skills 1, 2, 4 and
5. Immediately after completion of the formative assessment
staff mark the individual student worksheets, provide individual
feedback on the pass/fail outcome and provided detailed group
feedback. Students are then invited to seek staff guidance if
they are still unsure about the handling of micropipettes or op-
eration of UV spectrophotometers.
Evaluation of Effectiveness and Impact upon
Student feedback indicated the formative assessment was
perceived as a valuable exercise and the blended approach to
supporting different learner styles was appreciated (see Table
1). It is clear however that some of the challenges of group
work prevail with some students expressing a desire for smal ler
groups (see Table 1).
Cohort performance in the formative assessment has been
quite consistent with 30% - 40% of the population failing to
achieve a pass Grade (i.e. Grade D - Grade A, data not shown).
However, following group feedback on the formative assess-
ment, further individual instruction on the use of micropipettes;
operation of the UV spectrophotometer and the one week for
students to reflect on their performance there is a significant
improvement in the Grade profile of each cohort (see Figure
During the first two years of implementation >85% candi-
dates achieved a Grade A in the summative assessment and
consequently the difficulty level of both workstations 1 and 3
concerned with data generation was increased. These changes
led to a decrease in the proportion of the population achieving
Grade A (see Figure 3) suggesting the tool was more discrimi-
natory and a plateau in the Grade A profile appears to be
This study summarizes an assessment activity designed to
support a progressive approach to the development of labora-
tory skills within the 4 year MPharm degree. The practical
Table 1.
Post module comments captured via SEQ (May 2012 cohort).
Student Identifier Comments in S t udent Ev aluation Questionnaire (SEQ)
1 The practical skills test mad e me work hard to im p r ove my technique .
2 Formative practical assessment was a good taster for what to expect in the summative.
3 The formative coursework assessment w as a good indication of what to expect in the s ummative coursework assessment. Thought this
was good as it helped reduce nerves b efore the assessment.
4 The fact that I knew I had a practical coursework assessment made me work hard and take an interest in coursework sessions prior to
the test.
5 The coursework test was well handled; the formative ga ve a lot of help for the summative.
6 The maj o ri ty of the experiments were for 4 or 5 people but you could actually do i t o n your own or in pairs so thought thi s was a little
pointless and also m eant if there were people i n the grou p who liked to take the lead, others would simply not get a t urn and be left
7 The quizzes provided on Moodle which gave good examples of test and exam style questions were particularly useful both in assessing
understan ding of particular topics and in pre paration for the examination—would have been useful to have these for other modules.
8 Very helpful when staff came ro u nd to each student during the l ab coursew ork. I benefited greatly from this as when class is given
answers as a whole its hard to keep up and fully understand.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 909
Shows how
Knows how
Figure 1.
Miller’s triangle (1990).
Figure 2.
Distribution of assessment grades from 2008-2012.
Figure 3.
Grade “A” distribution across the 5 years of implementation.
skills assessment was developed to encourage individual stu-
dent engagement, promote acquisition of core laboratory skills
and is a valid instrument (Bloxham & Boyd, 2007) for assess-
ing the module learning outcome: “To generate, manipulate and
interpret experimental data relating to biochemistry.”
A blended learning strategy was implemented to address mul-
tiple learning styles and included significant periods of face to
face laboratory instruction, online videos to enable students to
view instrument demonstrations and online Articulate quizzes
to enable students to self evaluate their skills in pharmaceutical
science calculations. This approach enhanced the student ex-
perience, received positive student feedback (see Table 1) and
supported a “learning by seeing” and “learning by doing” ex-
perience (Bruner & Olson, 1973) which was accessible to all
students via the University’s virtual lear ning environment.
The development of the practical skills assessment and asso-
ciated marking pro forma required significant staff resources to
ensure: 1) the tasks were appropriate for assessment of the
knowledge and skills of stage 2 students, and 2) the assessment
pro forma enabled an accurate record of individual student
performance to be recorded in a consistent and transparent
manner. However the impact of the assessment on student skills
was almost immediately apparent with anecdotal feedback from
academic colleagues concerned with Stage 3 modules indicat-
ing that the laboratory skills and confidence of progressing
Stage 2 students had improved within the first year of imple-
mentation. Moreover there has been sharing of this good prac-
tice with academic colleagues leading to a modified form of the
assessment recently being introduced within the Stage 1 Physi-
cal Pharmacy module. This vertical integration of the assess-
ment strategy reinforces the message to students that the indi-
vidual acquisition of lab skills is a pre-requisite for progression
and also improves the potential for assessment of competency
(Miller’s Triangle, 1990) in the core skills associated with
pharmaceutical sciences.
External examiner feedback of the assessment has been posi-
tive and constructive whilst student feedback reflected the
findings of Taras (2002) and suggested the formative assess-
ment was both important to supporting individual learning and
an effective way for some students to manage the nerves asso-
ciated with the summative exercise.
It became clear however, in the first two years of application,
that the summative assessment was not as discriminatory as we
would have hoped for (see Figure 2) and whilst from an aca-
demic perspective this was problematic it was also important
that the student learners perceived the process as rigorous and
continued to be motivated and challenged by the tool (Juwah,
2000, 2003). Consequently in 2010 the assessment was refined
to increase the level of difficulty and a reduction in Grade A
awards occurred with a broader distribution of pass Grades
(A-D) being achieved and no significant alteration in the pro-
portion of Grade E or Fs being observed. Current data suggests
the proportion of population achieving Grade As has stabilized
(55% - 63%) but further monitoring of the effectiveness and
reliability of this assessment tool is desirable particularly in
light of the recent introduction of a modified form of the as-
sessment in early years of the degree course.
Future activities will be directed towards finding a solution
to addressing the concerns some students express regarding
individual contribution to and individual learning from a group
setting (see Table 1). One possible solution which will be tri-
aled next academic session is to include an element of peer
learning within the group work, with student pairs construc-
tively critiquing the organizational skills, team working skills
and quality of experimental data generated by their peers (Ju-
wah, 2003).
In conclusion this study evaluated the impact of a practical
skills assessment which reflects the ethos of GPhC standards
for the training and education of undergraduate pharmacy stu-
dents and which has been demonstrated to be a practicable and
cost effective tool which is valued by academics and the student
learners. The continued challenges that group working some-
times presents are recognized but the plan is to use this as an
opportunity to include peer learning and thereby further support
the development of self oriented and reflective practitioners
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
(GPhC, 2011).
Dr Susanne Boyle gratefully acknowledges the contribution
of Dr Raymond Reid and Mrs. Maureen Byres during the de-
velopment of this assessment tool and the constructive feedback
of Dr Simon Officer during the refinement of the marker’s pro-
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