Student physical therapists’ competence and self-confidence in basic clinical assessment and musculoskeletal differential diagnosis

Student physical therapists are expected to learn and confidently perform technical skills while integrating nontechnical behavioral and cognitive skills in their examinations and interventions.

The purpose of this study was to compare the self-confidence of entry-level doctoral student physical therapists during foundational assessment and musculoskeletal differential diagnosis courses and the students’ competencies based on skills examinations.

Student physical therapists (n=27) participated in a basic assessment course followed by a musculoskeletal differential diagnosis course. The students completed confidence surveys prior to skills examinations in both courses. A random sample of students participated in focus groups, led by a researcher outside the physical therapy department.

Student confidence did not correlate with competency scores. At the end of the basic clinical assessment course and the beginning of the differential diagnosis course, students’ confidence was significantly below baseline. However, by the end of the differential diagnosis course, student confidence had returned to original baseline levels.

Over three semesters, the students lost confidence and then regained confidence in their abilities. Additional experience and practice influenced perceived confidence. However, increased competence may have been associated with poor self-appraisal skills instead of increased competency.