Introducing the OSPE format to physiotherapy practicals

Schematic for student movement through the stations

Last year at our planning meeting (every year we meet to review the year and to plan for the upcoming one) we committed to conducting all of our practicals from now on in the OSPE format (Objective Structured Practical Examination). This format has the advantages of having all students perform the same assessment tasks, as well as having each student assessed by every examiner. There are other advantages (and disadvantages) but there’s plenty of literature that discusses it more eloquently than I have time to do here.


We’ve been running all of our practical tests in the department using this format since we made the decision last year and after a few bumps, we’re starting to get it right. We now run two tracks in parallel, so that we can see twice the number of students in the same time. We were limited to 5 examiners in our first test. There were some other problems that it took a few tests to sort out:

  • We didn’t always choose appropriate techniques for the time limit at each station e.g. some techniques ended up being completed way sooner than the time allocated, and others were rushed
  • We allotted too much time to move between stations
  • We read the same instructions to every candidate, which wasted time
  • We only realised during the second OSPE that students who were still waiting to take the test still had their cellphones with them

We surveyed the students and staff following the first OSPE and are in the process of reviewing those responses. We knew that we’d get a few things wrong no matter how much we tried and so the survey was an attempt to highlight areas that we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of by ourselves.

We’re going to use Google Docs to collaboratively write up an article based on the student and staff responses, just to highlight the challenges of moving to and running an OSPE in a resource-constrained environment. I’ll follow up this post with the outcome of the article.

If you’ve been through the process of introducing the OSPE format into your assessments, I’d love to hear about the challenges and successes you had.

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Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.