Harnessing Natural Language Processing to Support Decisions Around Workplace-Based Assessment: Machine Learning Study of Competency-Based Medical Education (Preprint) Academic Article uri icon

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    Residents receive a numeric performance rating (eg, 1-7 scoring scale) along with a narrative (ie, qualitative) feedback based on their performance in each workplace-based assessment (WBA). Aggregated qualitative data from WBA can be overwhelming to process and fairly adjudicate as part of a global decision about learner competence. Current approaches with qualitative data require a human rater to maintain attention and appropriately weigh various data inputs within the constraints of working memory before rendering a global judgment of performance.


    This study explores natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) applications for identifying trainees at risk using a large WBA narrative comment data set associated with numerical ratings.


    NLP was performed retrospectively on a complete data set of narrative comments (ie, text-based feedback to residents based on their performance on a task) derived from WBAs completed by faculty members from multiple hospitals associated with a single, large, residency program at McMaster University, Canada. Narrative comments were vectorized to quantitative ratings using the bag-of-n-grams technique with 3 input types: unigram, bigrams, and trigrams. Supervised ML models using linear regression were trained with the quantitative ratings, performed binary classification, and output a prediction of whether a resident fell into the category of at risk or not at risk. Sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy metrics are reported.


    The database comprised 7199 unique direct observation assessments, containing both narrative comments and a rating between 3 and 7 in imbalanced distribution (scores 3-5: 726 ratings; and scores 6-7: 4871 ratings). A total of 141 unique raters from 5 different hospitals and 45 unique residents participated over the course of 5 academic years. When comparing the 3 different input types for diagnosing if a trainee would be rated low (ie, 1-5) or high (ie, 6 or 7), our accuracy for trigrams was 87%, bigrams 86%, and unigrams 82%. We also found that all 3 input types had better prediction accuracy when using a bimodal cut (eg, lower or higher) compared with predicting performance along the full 7-point rating scale (50%-52%).


    The ML models can accurately identify underperforming residents via narrative comments provided for WBAs. The words generated in WBAs can be a worthy data set to augment human decisions for educators tasked with processing large volumes of narrative assessments.