With the increasing modularisation of medical curricula the number of assessments undertaken by students has risen to unsustainable levels and many medical schools are seeking to reduce the ‘assessment burden’ on students. Assessments have to justify their worth beyond simply supplying a mark to students. We have produced a 14 station formative assessment based on ABN learning outcomes for medical students, testing both factual knowledge (10 stations) and clinical examination skills (four stations) assessing 311 students, across five sittings during 2010–2011. Students sitting the examination are taught across six geographically and structurally disparate centres; from a tertiary Neuroscience centre to district general hospitals with only visiting Neurology cover. The examination is a discriminating tool for student abilities, producing a normal distribution of grades (range 43.8–96.4, Mean 78.7, SD 9.3). Highest scoring students at each sitting are invited for a prize winner's presentation, and poorly performing students (<2 SD below group mean) are supported via performance review. All students receive personalised feedback within 24 h of assessment. Although a sensitive means of discriminating between students there was no difference in grades between centres, suggesting equivalent teaching quality. Well designed formative assessments have the ability to distinguish between students of varying abilities, permitting reward of high attainers and support of those underperforming. Furthermore they can be used as a tool for quality assurance of teaching when large class sizes necessitate the delivery of teaching across multiple sites.
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