1.04 Student Assessment in the MD Program




Assessment plays an essential role in the education of students at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Assuring appropriate progress toward and eventual attainment of the core competencies required of Harvard medical students is an ongoing, dynamic, critical endeavor. These core competencies include: medical knowledge; critical thinking and inquiry; patient care; professionalism; interpersonal and communication skills; and organizational and social determinants of health care. Achieving and maintaining the core competencies is vital for our students, for our faculty, for our affiliated institutions and especially for the patients and communities our graduates will serve.


Assessment of students at HMS takes many forms and is integrated into the educational process. In classrooms, in learning studios, in laboratories and at affiliated clinical sites, assessment is an ongoing, virtually continuous process. Course directors generally determine the methods, formats, and frequency of student assessment that best reflect the content and objectives of the course or clerkship (see Section 2.03, Grading and Examination). Some assessments may involve written examinations; others involve the collection and curation of the observations of faculty in preclerkship courses and supervising clinical faculty and preceptors in clinical settings. Clinical simulation exercises (objective structured clinical examinations – OSCEs, simulated patient encounters, and simulation labs) provide additional opportunities to assess an array of competencies, including clinical skills, medical knowledge, interpersonal and communication skills, professionalism, and reasoning ability.


Assessment may be formative and/or summative. It may be quantitative (e.g., multiple-choice examinations, NBME subject examinations, OSCEs) or qualitative (e.g., verbal feedback given by preceptors to students based on direct observation of clinical encounters). It may be delivered in written form or via a discussion between the student and faculty. Regardless of how they are structured, obtained, or delivered, all assessments are clearly focused on and aligned with the stated objectives of each course or clerkship. These objectives are derived from and directly mapped to the six core competencies that HMS students must attain prior to graduation. Assessment discussions and written narratives provide students with feedback on their performance and, when appropriate, include suggestions for enhancement or improvement.


All courses and clerkships clearly define and provide to students information on how and when students are being assessed; the format and timing of those assessments; how the assessments are being used (formative and/or summative); and how the assessments are being reported (mid-course/mid-clerkship; final grade report; transcript; Medical Student Performance Exam [MSPE]). Students are informed as to who has access to which assessments (students; faculty; course/clerkship director; advisors; coordinators/staff; deans). In addition, course/clerkship directors define the expectations for satisfactory completion (and in some cases, achievement of honors or honors with distinction) of the course/clerkship.


Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative assessments are geared to providing actionable feedback, emphasizing areas of strength, identifying areas in need of improvement and offering suggestions for enhancing and maintaining the objectives of the course or clerkship. These assessments occur at appropriate times during a course or clerkship to allow students ample time to identify any areas that require improvement and adequate time to satisfactorily achieve the stated objectives. Formative assessments may include quizzes or formative OSCEs, and may be delivered via in-person discussion with students or in written form.


Summative assessments often include a discussion with the student and, importantly, provide a written narrative that presents information, observations and evaluations of the student’s performance. Such assessments may include test scores in addition to observations made in the classroom, learning studio or laboratory. Observations and comments from supervising clinicians on clerkships provide a significant portion of the summative assessment at the end of clerkships. The summative assessment provides end-of-course or end-of-clerkship evaluation of the student’s overall performance with careful attention to the student’s achievement of the stated course/clerkship learning objectives – objectives developed to support attainment or maintenance of core competencies.


Since AY16, the following key elements have been incorporated into the clinical assessment of students:

  • Summative and formative assessments in clinical courses, clerkships, subinternships and electives include observations and evaluations of performance using the competency-based framework of Entrustable Professional Activities (PDF) (EPAs). EPAs are mapped to clinical experiences and different phases of the curriculum and provide a platform for assuring that students are prepared for their next stages of training and to provide safe and effective clinical care.
  • Grading in the required/core clerkships in the Principal Clinical Experience (PCE) is Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) to align with the assessment strategy in the prior phase of the curriculum (S/U) and the education philosophy at HMS of supporting a growth/development orientation in contrast to a performance orientation.
  • Grading in required Subinternships and all clinical electives is Honors with Distinction; Honors; Pass; Unsatisfactory.


Policy on Formative Assessment in the HMS Curriculum


Preclerkship and Clinical Curriculum

All preclerkship courses (including clinical courses), required clerkships and clinical electives provide formal formative assessment of each student by the midpoint of the course, if not earlier. Depending on the specific course or clerkship, this formative feedback may take one or more of several forms:

  • Individual meetings between faculty and students, at which progress in the course is reviewed and any necessary recommendations are made for remediation, enrichment, or modification of learning strategies;
  • Narrative feedback provided by faculty members to individual students in written form, accompanied by any necessary recommendations made for remediation, enrichment, or modification of learning strategies;
  • The provision of individual results and class-wide statistics to each student after an objective measurement of knowledge acquisition, such as a multiple-choice examination, with accompanying recommendations targeted at students with different levels of performance.


Policy on Written Summative Narrative Assessment in the HMS Curriculum


Preclerkship Curriculum

  • Courses in which the primary mode of instruction takes place in tutorial settings, clinical site preceptorships, or other small groups (with typically up to 12 students per group) provide a narrative assessment of each student at the end of the course if individual faculty members have had at least 10 hours of contact time with students as a group.
  • Courses in which the primary mode of instruction takes place in learning studios or classrooms (with typically ~40 students per group) provide a narrative assessment of each student at the end of the course if individual faculty members have had more than 40 hours of contact time with students as a group.


Clinical Curriculum

All clerkships/clinical electives that are four weeks or more in duration, and in which the primary mode of instruction is clinical immersion and bedside teaching, provide a written summative narrative assessment of each student at the end of the clerkship. In most cases, this narrative assessment is the synthesis of multiple narratives submitted by individual faculty and residents who have worked with the student during the clerkship. Additional inputs that contribute to the narrative assessment may include NMBE subject examinations; oral examinations; CEX (Clinical Evaluation Exercises); progress toward entrustability as outlined in the mapped EPAs for the clinical experience. 


Timeline of Grade Submission and Use of Assessments in the MSPE


Final grades are to be submitted by the course/clerkship director within 4 weeks of the end of the course/clerkship to the Registrar’s office, with an absolute deadline of 6 weeks. The final grade is defined as the actual grade (i.e., Honors with Distinction; Honors; Satisfactory/Pass; Unsatisfactory) and the summative narrative (where required).


Formative assessments of any type (written or verbal) are not included in the MSPE. All final grades, however, are included in the MSPE, including summative narratives from all required clinical clerkships and subinternships. Preclerkship course summative narratives are not included in the MSPE.


Policy on Appeal of Assessment Results


A variety of assessment tools are employed throughout the curriculum to ensure that students are achieving course or clerkship learning objectives and HMS-wide program objectives, during all phases of the MD program (Preclerkship, PCE [Principal Clinical Experience], and Post-PCE). The implementation of these assessment tools often results in numerical scores; narrative comments based on direct observation of students that serve both formative and summative purposes; clinical skills evaluations; and/or other measures of academic and clinical performance. These results are in turn used to determine course and clerkship grades and narrative assessments. For more information about grading and assessment, see Sections 1.04: Student Assessment in the MD Program and 2.03: Grading and Examinations.

As a component of establishing a fair and formal process for determining a grade, students may request reconsideration of their assessment results and course/clerkship grades.

First Level of Appeal

A student’s initial request for reconsideration of an original grade or narrative evaluation should be raised via email with the course/clerkship director who determined the original grade or narrative evaluation, within six weeks* of notification of the grade and/or evaluation to the student. The initial communication from the student should take the form of an email directly to the relevant course/clerkship director, noting the aspect(s) of the evaluation the student would like reconsidered and the proposed basis for that reconsideration.

  • Students are encouraged to consult with their Academic Society advisor before submitting an initial request for reconsideration.

  • The course/clerkship director is expected to respond within two weeks of receiving the request for reconsideration. The response should take the form of an email directly to the student and to their Society advisor. If the original grade and/or narrative is to be altered in any way, the email must also be sent to the HMS Registrar.

It is expected that most concerns will be settled at the first level of appeal. In unique circumstances, if the student is not satisfied with the outcome of the first level of appeal, a second level of appeal is available.

Second Level of Appeal

If the student is not satisfied with the outcome of the first level of appeal, a further written appeal may be submitted to the appropriate governance committee within two-weeks of receiving a response to the prior appeal. The appropriate subcommittee of the Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee/EPCC (see table below) will obtain input from the relevant course/clerkship director and will review the appeal at its next regularly scheduled meeting.


Course Type

Reviewing Committee

Pathways preclerkship course

Pathways Preclerkship Subcommittee

HST preclerkship course

HST Curriculum Subcommittee

Core PCE clerkship

Relevant clerkship committee, with subsequent consideration

if needed by the PCE Subcommittee

Advanced course/clerkship

Relevant post-PCE subcommittee (i.e., Clinical Electives, Subinternship, AISC, Clinical Capstone) with subsequent consideration if needed by the Post-PCE Subcommittee


  • Students are required to consult with their Academic Society advisor before submitting a request at the second level of appeal.
  • During its consideration of the appeal, the governance subcommittee will review primary documentation related to the appeal, including:
    • The original grade or narrative evaluation;
    • The student’s written request for appeal;
    • The course or clerkship director’s response;
    • Additional data as determined by the relevant subcommittee as needed to reach a conclusion.
  • The student and course/clerkship director are not expected to appear before the subcommittee during the review, but do have the option to do so.
  • All EPCC subcommittees have full voting student members who have the same access to information as other committee members. Upon appointment to these subcommittees, students are informed of their responsibilities regarding the confidential handling of sensitive information about their peers.
  • Subcommittee members who have a conflict of interest with a student who has requested further appeal must recuse themselves from the appeal proceedings.
  • After reviewing relevant materials and thoroughly discussing the appeal, the subcommittee will vote to support or deny the appeal based on its merits. All appeals are decided by a simple majority vote of the voting members present at the meeting.
  • The governance subcommittee is expected to respond within two weeks after its consideration of the appeal. Written notice of the governance committee’s decision will be sent to the HMS Registrar (using the standard HMS Appeal of Assessment Results form), who will make any necessary revisions to the original grade and will keep a record of the appeal process.
  • The HMS Registrar will provide written notification of the governance subcommittee’s decision to the student, to the student’s Society advisor, and to the course or clerkship director. Notification will ordinarily be sent within 10 business days of the governance subcommittee’s notification to the HMS Registrar.


Final Appeal for All Grades

In all cases, for students who have a concern that is not settled after the determination at the second level of appeal, a written appeal should be submitted to the Assessment Subcommittee, which will have the final authority to determine if the grade should be reconsidered. This committee will consider all previous decisions before making a final determination.

* In the above text, all indications of time refer to calendar units (e.g., 7 days refers to 7 calendar days, not business days; a week refers to 7 calendar days).

Updated 2/23/21