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Assessing to Empower Learners

Diagnostic Assessment [4:30]
  • Learn what diagnostic assessment is and how it is used prior to the learning experience to be sure it addresses student needs.
  • Learn to assess students interests, attitudes, prior knowledge, and mental models to motivate them and provide a better understanding of their learning experiences.
  • Learn several strategies to use for diagnostic assessment, including concept maps and misconceptions assessment.

Let's this time talk about diagnostic assessment. Diagnostic assessment is the measurement of preexisting knowledge and skills and the identification of misconceptions in order for us to set goals for the learning. In other words, we conduct diagnostic assessment before the learning experience so we can be sure that it is exactly what our students need. I want you to know that diagnostic assessment can be either led by the teacher or led by the learner.

I want to provide a frame for diagnostic assessment. It's important for us to be able to assess two different aspects of our students. The first is their interests and attitudes. We need to be sure that the learning experiences that we give to our students are aligned with what they're interested in, what they can get engaged in because we really do want our students to start with motivation to engage in this whole project we're talking about.

Now, the best way for our students and for us to understand about their interests and attitudes is through self-reflection on the students part. There are a number of ways that we can help students tap into: What am I really interested in? What do I want to pursue? What do I already know and what gaps are there in what I know? We could do an interest survey. We could do a graphic organizer where they actually think about what are the gaps. What do I know? What am I interested in pursuing? That turns out to be pretty powerful because then students are reminded of what they're interested in and they can pursue that.

The second big piece on diagnostic assessment and probably the one we do most often, is assessing their prior knowledge and their mental models. When we do that, what we're looking at is what kind of background knowledge do they already have? Then the idea of the existing mental models.

Mental models are ideas about the way the world works. We all form mental models all the time based on our experience. Mental models are very difficult to change. What research tells us is that unless you bring those to the surface and actually understand what your own mental model is, you're not going to change it even when you get conflicting information. By bringing that to the surface as diagnostic assessment at the beginning of an inquiry experience, we enable students to understand what they already think and then it is going to pop to them when they find information that doesn't agree with them.

I'll suggest a couple of strategies you might use for diagnostic assessment that I've used, that I really actually love, and one is a concept map. They visualize what are the main ideas I know and how are those connected to other ideas I know and whoops, here's this whole hole of ideas that I don't know anything about. That can be pretty powerful. You can develop that as a class or individually.

The second way I wanted to share with you is the whole idea about misconceptions assessment and this is particularly important in areas like science where we have formed our vision of how gravity works. By the way we see it operating in the world and we may actually not have any idea how gravity works. What a teacher can do, what a librarian can do is you can figure out what is the common misconceptions that students might have about that particular content area, or that particular skill, actually, and do a list of statements that have true attributes and common misconceptions.

Then when students see the right answers, they go, "Oh, I thought that was true." It's going to prepare them to engage in a quality investigation and to realize that they have to be critical thinkers in the information that they gain.

Awakening Prior Knowledge

In this episode, Dr. Stripling discusses key areas for diagnostic assessments: interests, attitudes, prior knowledge, and mental models. In her article, "Awakening and Building Upon Prior Knowledge," Kristin Fontichiaro offers a number of crowdsourced ideas to help students access their prior knowledge about a subject. Read the article and then complete the reflection activity below.




Taking the lead from Fontichiaro, ask your professional community to share what methods they've used to help students "awaken and build upon" prior knowledge, and record their responses in the workshop packet. Which of these might you try to incorporate into your practice?

MLA Citation

"Assessing to Empower Learners: Awakening Prior Knowledge." School Library Connection, November 2019,

Entry ID: 2228088

About the Author

Barbara K. Stripling, DPS, is recently retired from a long career in the library profession, including positions as Director of Library Services for the New York City schools, a school library media specialist and school district director of libraries in Arkansas, a library grant program director in Tennessee, and Senior Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Practice in the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University. Barb has written or edited numerous books and articles and is the creator of the Stripling Model of Inquiry. Stripling has recently developed and published (in April 2019) a re-imagined version of the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum, a PK-12 continuum of the skills that librarians teach to empower students to be lifelong learners ( Stripling has served the profession as president of the American Association of School Librarians (1986-1987), president of the New York Library Association (2016-2017), president of the American Library Association (2013-2014), and current president of the Freedom to Read Foundation (2020-). Email:, Twitter: @barbstripling, LinkedIn: barbarastripling

MLA Citation

Stripling, Barbara K. "Assessing to Empower Learners. Diagnostic Assessment [4:30]." School Library Connection, ABC-CLIO, November 2019,

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Entry ID: 2228078