Diagnosing Student Thinking

“Why did they give that answer?”

When students provide unexpected responses, they provide a glimpse of not just what they know but what they are thinking. While student thinking is distinct in many ways from knowledge or skills, it is equally critical to learning. The ways in which a student processes new information and combines that with their prior learning and experiences shapes their long term memory. Being able to diagnose that student thinking and respond in a way that shifts thinking improves the chances that students will persist.

Jim Minstrell and Philip Bell have coauthored a brief on STEM Teaching Tools that details some suggestions for moving beyond thinking about “misconceptions” and “wrong”answers toward thinking about “facets of student thinking.” One of Jim’s projects, Diagnoser.com, provides a useful tool for diagnosing student thinking, particularly around physics, and has helpful tools to aid teachers in establishing a diagnostic classroom environment. Diagnoser’s tips on the what, how, and why of assessment may shift your own thinking:

Most teachers would say they assess all the time. But typically this means they identify whether the student has the “right” idea, and if not the instruction presents more of the right idea. We mean something different here. To us diagnostic learning environments are more like the diagnosis and prescription that a medical doctor does. The doctor doesn’t just find out that you are not healthy. She/he assesses to find out, as specifically as possible, what the trouble is and then prescribes treatment to address that specific difficulty.

Measuring student thinking is critical to changing student thinking. Deciding what to do with the information is just as important. Diagnoser also has prescriptive activities that suggest activities or teacher responses designed to shift student thinking from problematic to be more in line with instructional goals. These activities can be a great source of inspiration to help address student thinking on topics not specifically included on the site.

What are your practices and ideas for addressing student thinking?


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