George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

4 Reasons to Try Diagnostic Learning Experiences

Diagnostic learning experiences show teachers what elementary students already know, setting the stage for more learning.

November 3, 2022
Elementary teacher leads her students on a walk outside
Kim Karpeles/Alamy Stock Photo

Sparking interest, igniting passion, and generating curiosity at the launch of a unit of study not only serves as ways to engage students in the learning process but also provide students and teachers with valuable information to use as starting points for instruction. 

A diagnostic learning experience draws from the tradition of diagnostic assessments in that it provides information about what students know and can do. A diagnostic learning experience, however, does much more because it’s not an isolated event. It’s integrated into classroom lessons, occurs over a few days, and is completed both collectively and individually.

Diagnostic learning experiences impact learning in the following ways.

1. sparking students’ interest

Diagnostic learning experiences can generate excitement about learning when they serve as previews for what’s to come in a unit of study. In one elementary classroom, students used the see, think, wonder protocol to examine a close-up image of the Grand Canyon.

The protocol provided students with a structure to take notice of the intricate lines, textures, and colors of the Grand Canyon walls and make conjectures as to what they were seeing, what it meant, and why it mattered. Disclosing the full image of the Grand Canyon created intrigue at the beginning of a unit on weathering and erosion. 

In another classroom, elementary students participated in a gallery walk. Students worked in small groups examining images of Chinese culture posted on the classroom walls. As they reviewed the images, they wrote on sticky notes what each image revealed about people’s lives in China. As students engaged in the unit, they returned to their sticky notes to confirm or revise their thinking. 

Students in a third classroom watched a video clip from the Disney film Inside Out, which introduced them to the emotions of the main character. Students shared connections and examples of each emotion and added new words for describing emotions to a vocabulary word wall.

During the unit, students examined the emotions of different characters in the stories they read. They identified the emotion, determined why the character felt the emotion, and looked at what events caused the characters’ emotions to change.

2. Activating prior knowledge for more learning to occur

Diagnostic assessments place an emphasis on how quickly a student can respond, rather than the thoughtfulness of the response, because they are on-demand tasks such as writing prompts or multiple-choice questions. In each of the above diagnostic learning experiences, students engaged with images and media through discussion with their peers. By doing so, they had the time to think and activate prior knowledge. 

Another example of a diagnostic learning experience that provides time for students to make connections is an enhanced KWL (What do you know? What do you want to know? What did you learn?). In this experience, a teacher posts an image about plants. Students write, draw, or find additional images that demonstrate what they know about plants and add them to the bulletin board. As they participate in introductory lessons about plants, they continue to add to the bulletin board. After a few days, students reread the bulletin board display before independently writing a response to the KWL questions. 

When students have the time to activate prior knowledge, the teacher gets a more accurate picture of what students know. When students make connections, it lays the foundation for new learning. For students with varying life experiences, the diagnostic learning experience is also beneficial because they can begin to build the background knowledge they need to engage in the unit. 

3. Providing a starting point for instruction

The diagnostic learning experience provides information the teacher can use to make instructional decisions when it’s followed by an independent written response. In the above example, the final response to the What do you know? portion of the KWL provided the teacher with information to determine the starting point for instruction and opportunities for differentiation. 

With the students’ responses in mind, the teacher decided to have the students work in small groups at different stations. Using provided resources, one group created images identifying the different parts of the plants and their functions. Another group created a diagram showing the life cycle of plants, while a third group designed an illustrated vocabulary word wall. All of the students worked toward the same high expectation for the unit—plants have internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction.

4. Monitoring understanding

The written response from a diagnostic learning experience also helps students monitor their own progress and learning if they’re invited to add and reflect on their initial understanding. The structure of the KWL is designed to guide student inquiry in this way. Students generate questions to pursue and, upon completion of the unit, return to answer their questions. 

A frame of reference thinking map offers another way that students can monitor learning. For example, at the launch of a unit, students write what they know about their local community, how they know it, and questions they have about their community. After taking a walk around the local community, students return and add to their thinking before engaging in small group discussions. At each stage of this experience, students use different-colored pens to track how their thinking grows and develops. This process continues at various points of the unit. At the end of the unit, students write a reflection on what and how they learned about their community.  

Diagnostic learning experiences, like the ones described here, set the stage for learning and ensure that all students are invited into the learning process, no matter what their starting point. 

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Filed Under

  • Formative Assessment
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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