From education to employment

The Professional Discussion – Under the bonnet of end-point assessment

Tim Chewter, Head of Research and Communications, Strategic Development Network (SDN)

If you are looking to deliver (or prepare your apprentices) for end-point assessments in the future, you will need to get to grips with the assessment methods specified in the new assessment plans.

Some of these assessment methods are new to apprenticeships; others will need to be delivered differently.

Over the coming weeks – following our introduction to the new world of “high-stakes” end-point assessment – we are going to publish a series of insights into the different assessment methods used in assessment plans and how they work in practice.

So to kick things off, let’s take a look at the Professional Discussion. Welcome to Article #2

The basics

Professional Discussions are featured in 40% of all new assessment plans across a wide variety of industry sectors.

In essence, the Professional Discussion is a structured interaction with an apprentice as part of the formal end-point assessment process. The two-way dialogue will be recorded (text, video or audio) and graded by the end-point assessor.

Let’s break that down a bit…

When is it used?

Normally, the Professional Discussion is used as part of an observed or project assessment. It is particularly useful where other forms of assessment are difficult to administer, or where evidence for assessment is more difficult to quantify. The Professional Discussion allows you to probe and explore the depth of the apprentice’s knowledge.

How does it work?

The end-point assessor and apprentice undertake a structured discussion with key questions asked and responses recorded (and graded).

What does it assess?

Qualitative interview data primarily assesses applied knowledge and behaviours. A Professional Discussion allows the assessor to test knowledge (“I see you do it – do you know why you do it?”), it allows the assessor to fill in gaps and talk through the apprentice’s breadth of understanding (perhaps where the assessor has only been able to observe the apprentice in narrow settings), and also allows the assessor to validate/authenticate pieces and work / evidence that have been submitted.

If the Professional Discussion is conducted alongside a practical assessment, it can also generate additional evidence to assess the skills of the apprentice.

Validity, reliability and robustness

End-point assessors will need to be skilled in the kind of questions they ask. They will also need to be able to disarm the apprentice’s nerves/anxiety, and be able to conduct the discussion in a way that is consistent across all apprentice’s they assess for that standard.

For example, how many ‘bites of the cherry’ will you give the apprentice to answer the questions adequately? What prompts will you use to draw out higher-level answers to allow apprentices to demonstrate higher-level grade responses?

Assessors will also need to avoid bias. Each apprentice will need to be assessed fairly and consistently, irrespective (for example) of whether the apprentice is confident or nervous, or whether an apprentice is eloquent or where English is their second language.

Your evidence base and recording procedures also need to be robust. It’s high stakes, so there will be times where an apprentice or employer challenges their pass/fail grade and often qualitative methods like a professional discussion can be the first area that is challenged. Your grading decisions will need to stand up to scrutiny, with a clear evidence base.

Advantages of this assessment method

The Professional Discussion is a highly flexible form of assessment that allows the assessor to cover gaps in evidence from project work, practical assessment or written assignments.

If conduced well, the Professional Discussion can evidence behaviour developments and is particularly good at generating evidence for problem solving.

Where conducted with other forms of assessment, such as a practical observation, excellent cross-referenced evidence can be collected to help validate the apprentice’s overall grade (by the assessor themselves and by moderating / external quality testing regimes)

Risks of this assessment method

If questions are poorly designed or closed (eliciting a yes/no response), or where repetition occurs and scope is less well defined, the assessment is likely to produce limited evidence. It’s important to avoid the discussion being a mechanical lists of questions, rather than an opportunity to discuss and explore the area of interest.

The “high-stakes” nature of end-point assessment can compound this issue. With frameworks, the trainer-assessor had built a relationship with the apprentice over a period of year or more. Now the assessor is a stranger (independent of the training), with no prior relationship with the apprentice. The assessor will need to be able to put the apprentice at ease and ask the right questions, allowing the apprentice sufficient space to demonstrate their understanding.

The Professional Discussion can generate a large quantity of qualitative evidence that might be difficult to grade, validate and compare across peer groups. The skill of the assessor is central to the recording of data. The risk is reduced when combined with audio or video assessment tools.

What it means in practice…

  • The discussion should not be contrived (just noting responses to a list of questions). Question structures must permit open responses, but relatively straightforward to administer. Answers should be encouraged beyond one-line responses, to explore the depth of applied knowledge and understanding held by the apprentice
  • Discussions should be semi-structured, but there should be a clearly defined set of outputs for the session. A range of extension questions to allow a range of grading outcomes should also be developed

Tim Chewter, Head of Research and Communications, Strategic Development Network (SDN)

Article #1 High-Stakes – Under the bonnet of end-point assessment

To get to grips with end-point assessment in more depth, places are now available on our Level 3 Award course in Undertaking End-Point Assessment. SDN are also producing a set of recorded presentations covering the main end-point assessment methods and critical areas of practice.

These will be available at the beginning of March. Find out more here:

More updates and practice can be accessed on our new End-Point Assessment LinkedIn Group and through our mailing list – feel free to join!

Let us know if you have any comments at the bottom of this page.

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