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Diagnostic assessment

‘The implication for ‘good’ geography lessons is, first, that teachers need to be aware of each student’s starting point.’

Margaret Roberts, 2011

Topics on this page:

What is diagnostic assessment? | Establishing the students’ starting point | Observations of diagnostic assessment in action | Diagnostic assessment during lessons | Hinge-points in lessons | Discussion on using hinge questions Reading

What is diagnostic assessment?

In simple terms, diagnostic assessment is used to find out the knowledge and skills that a student has already learnt so that the future teaching content can be planned. For example, it can provide evidence of what a student can recall from previous teaching, or whether they hold particular misunderstandings that could be barriers to progression.

To know how best to teach students we need some understanding of what they are bringing to the classroom. Therefore, it is common to carry out some form of diagnostic assessment at the start of a new topic to identify what students already know and can do. A teacher may learn from this, for example, that all the students in the class have a weaker understanding than expected or desired in some aspect of the topic that needs to be addressed.

It may be one stumbling block such as a simple skill or use of terminology and once that is corrected, the lesson can go forward to progress their understanding. However, the diagnostic assessment may uncover more serious misconceptions that need to be tackled.

Diagnostic assessment may also provide insight on how to extend the learning for a group of high achievers, or target intervention for a student with SEND. Diagnosis is a prerequisite for adaptive teaching. When used effectively to identify students’ knowledge, understanding, and progress, it enables teaching to be adapted to a specific need and/or to any difficulties that students are experiencing.

Teachers should be constantly diagnosing students’ understanding in order to make appropriate adaptations to their needs. Diagnostic information assists a teacher to make changes to their plans and provide appropriate levels of scaffolding and support. This is integral to high quality adaptive teaching.

Diagnostic assessment can be employed during a lesson, or lesson sequence, to identify why an individual or a small group of students are having difficulty. It can indicate a misunderstanding or misconception that lies behind an error that students are making. The teacher can then plan how the lesson will take into account and correct the students’ thinking. It is important for a teacher to share this information with the students so that they too understand where they lack knowledge or have a misunderstanding and can work to correct it.

  • See Weeden, P. (2017) p. 187.

Establishing the students’ starting point

The first step for all good geography teaching is to identify the students’ previous learning. Margaret Roberts says that to elicit what students already understand you need ‘to connect with students’ minds’. Remind yourself about this by referring to Roberts (2011) Section 2 in this paper that you have read before.

The two important reasons for obtaining diagnostic information about students’ starting points are:

  • to enable you to plan how your teaching will take students’ understanding forward
  • to use as a baseline from which you can assess their progress.

Your diagnostic assessment does not have to be a formal test. It can be part of usual lesson activities. It is as important for you to find out what students do not understand as well as what they know. There are many ways to do this, but good strategies can be found at Activities for explaining in Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms

You could find out by questioning, see Questions in the geography classroom. You could use a short quiz or ask students to draw a diagram (e.g. to represent the greenhouse effect) or use Concept mapping. Any of these strategies can provide you with insights about a student’s prior learning and diagnostic information that you can use.

Your diagnostic assessment might include finding out about students’ opinions and feelings at the start of a topic, for example to identify any stereotypical views you need to take into consideration in your teaching. Aim to establish a classroom culture in which students are not afraid to be wrong and are willing to admit ignorance or confusion.

  • Look at this scheme from the Making Geography Happen project on ‘Uneven Development’. Note how the plan (see end of document) starts with ‘Preparation’, which includes several activities to ‘determine and share existing understanding and areas of interest’. Note also that through the report the teachers continually refer to the use of diagnostic assessments to identify how students’ understanding of the concept of ‘uneven development’ is progressing.
  • See Ross (2003), which describes an activity used at the start of year 7 that provides a benchmark for future assessment.

Observe how experienced geography teachers identify students’ starting points in lessons:

  • Do they discuss prior learning with the whole class and use questions to elicit understanding?
  • What specific tasks/activities do they use to seek diagnostic information?
  • Do they feed back to students what they need to know and how they will learn this?
  • Do they focus on diagnosing needs of any specific groups – high ability, SEND?
  • Do they uncover any misconceptions?

Discuss the use of ‘diagnostic assessment’ with the teacher after the lesson to find out if there were any surprises in what they found out from students and how they will adapt their teaching in the light of their findings.

For some of the lessons you are planning to teach in the coming weeks, pay particular attention to establishing the prior knowledge your students have of the topic or concept you are teaching.

Diagnostic assessment during lessons

All ongoing assessment within a lesson includes finding out what students know and can do and will, therefore, provide diagnostic information. You should be prepared to intervene and provide ‘on the spot’ teaching where necessary in response to the information you glean. It might lead you to alter your plan for the lesson, so you must be prepared to be flexible.

For example, you might need to change the pace of the lesson to give students time to consolidate their learning, you might need to stop an activity for an interim plenary to ensure that all students are ‘on track’, or you might need to set specific targets for individuals or groups.

Dylan Wiliam has distinguished between diagnostic and formative assessment, suggesting that ‘diagnostic’ should refer to those assessments that provide information about the difficulties that a student is experiencing, and ‘formative’ to those that provide feedback to learners about how to improve. But what is most important to remember is that your assessment in lessons should do both.

Hinge-points in lessons

A key question to ask yourself in lessons is ‘Do students understand this well enough to move on?’. This is described as a hinge-point in a lesson. You must decide, ‘Can I move on to the next key idea? Should I retrack to consolidate learning?’.

Hinge-points are pivotal points in a lesson or sequence of lessons when a teacher wants to check students’ conceptual understanding before they move on. The teacher asks a hinge question to all students and uses their responses (perhaps on mini-whiteboards, using alphabet cards or with a response app) to determine the extent to which students have understood key concepts or have any misconceptions.

Hinge-point questions provide a quick (about 30 seconds) informal check of the understanding of students. They should not distract from the lesson. Their purpose is to obtain a response from each student to be able to diagnose any key misunderstandings or misconceptions as a basis for a decision whether to continue with the lesson or revisit the learning. Teachers should then make adjustments to their teaching to respond to problems.

Hinge questions are often multiple-choice questions, which you must design carefully to uncover misconceptions. They must be planned in advance; it is not possible to think on your feet and make up such questions during the lesson if they are to be effective.

Hinge questions are not just for younger students. Rawlings Smith (2017) discusses their use with post-16 students and gives an excellent example of a question to check whether students understand the range of factors that cause temperatures to increase rapidly in the Arctic (see p. 268).

Simon Renshaw has explored the use of hinge questions in geography. He says, ‘I find hinge questions quite challenging to create before I teach a particular part of a learning sequence. Despite my best pre-emptive efforts, I’m often surprised by the misconceptions some students experience.’ You need to have a clear understanding of both your learning intention(s) and the potential misconceptions. He gives this advice:

  • Focus on the critical aspects of learning intentions that are essential for further progression.
  • For a quick check on understanding, try to obtain a response from all students within one minute; you should be able to view and interpret responses within 30 seconds.
  • Give yourself enough time to respond to the information you obtain in the remainder of the lesson – just before the bell is no good!
  • For a good hinge question, it must be impossible to reach correct answers using an incorrect thought process (that is much easier said than done!).

Simon Renshaw took his use of hinge questions forward by using the Quick Key app to provide instant feedback from the students so he could diagnose misconceptions in his geography classroom. (There are alternatives to Quick Key app you can use – ask in your school for suitable software they hold a licence for.)

  • Refer to ‘Evaluating the use of hinge questions and the Quick Key app‘ for his comments on using this approach, and what it told him about the aspects that his students were finding difficult to understand. Also, look at the subsequent webpage that gives the students comments on the assessment; they have some interesting insights.

Meet with your mentor or an experienced geography teacher to discuss how to employ the use of hinge questions in your lessons. What advice can they suggest? Discuss:

  • techniques to use to get a response from every student – and whether there are any technology options available to you
  • how to devise questions for one of your upcoming lessons that students cannot get right for the wrong reason
  • how to adapt the lesson in the light of your diagnosis.

Suggest that your mentor/teacher observes a lesson using the hinge-point questions and evaluate the outcomes together. 


  • Bromley, M. (2017) ‘Teaching practice: Hinge questions, Sec Ed.
  • Education Endowment Foundation (undated) Diagnostic assessment: Evidence insights, EEF.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Renshaw, S. (2015) ‘Creating and deploying ‘hinge’ questions’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2011) What makes a geography lesson good?, A paper based on a lecture given at the 2011 GA Annual Conference.
  • Ross, S. (2003) ‘My favourite place’, Teaching Geography, January. 
  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association.