Measuring differential attainment: a longitudinal analysis of assessment results for 1512 medical students at four Scottish medical schools

David Hope*, Avril Dewar, Eleanor J Hothersall, John Paul Leach, Isobel Cameron, Alan Jaap

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
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Objective To measure Differential Attainment (DA) among Scottish medical students and to explore whether attainment gaps increase or decrease during medical school.

Design A retrospective analysis of undergraduate medical student performance on written assessment, measured at the start and end of medical school.

Setting Four Scottish medical schools (universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow).

Participants 1512 medical students who attempted (but did not necessarily pass) final written assessment.

Main outcome measures The study modelled the change in attainment gap during medical school for four student demographical categories (white/non-white, international/Scottish domiciled, male/female and with/without a known disability) to test whether the attainment gap grew, shrank or remained stable during medical school. Separately, the study modelled the expected versus actual frequency of different demographical groups in the top and bottom decile of the cohort.

Results The attainment gap grew significantly for white versus non-white students (t(449.39)=7.37, p=0.001, d=0.49 and 95% CI 0.34 to 0.58), for internationally domiciled versus Scottish-domiciled students (t(205.8) = −7, p=0.01, d=0.61 and 95% CI –0.75 to −0.42) and for male versus female students (t(1336.68)=3.54, p=0.01, d=0.19 and 95% CI 0.08 to 0.27). International, non-white and male students received higher marks than their comparison group at the start of medical school but lower marks by final assessment. No significant differences were observed for disability status. Students with a known disability, Scottish students and non-white students were over-represented in the bottom decile and under-represented in the top decile.

Conclusions The tendency for attainment gaps to grow during undergraduate medical education suggests that educational factors at medical schools may—however inadvertently—contribute to DA. It is of critical importance that medical schools investigate attainment gaps within their cohorts and explore potential underlying causes.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberE046056
Number of pages8
JournalBMJ Open
Early online date3 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding The Scottish Medical Education Research Consortium (SMERC) provided funding to allow the research project to take place. The funding was used to pay for administrator and researcher time to collate and analyse the data. The funder had no direct input into the analyses chosen or the reporting of the results. The researchers were independent from the funder, and all researchers had access to the data and can take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Data Availability Statement

No data are available. Due to the sensitivity of the dataset—including confidential information on student demographics and assessment scores—we are unable to share raw data.


  • Medical education
  • differential attainment
  • fairness


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