A tool to diagnose your students’ learning difficulties

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 12, 2009

One of our main messages here at the Science Education Initiative is that it’s important that teachers both find out what their students difficulties are, and then choose their instructional strategies accordingly.

That sounds easy, but for the average college faculty (facing a sea of 200 faces) or the average K12 teacher (who has to prepare a lesson every single day), this becomes a huge and sometimes insurmountable task to do on your own.

So, I was curious at a recent conference to find out about a tool — Diagnoser — which purports to do this work for you.  Here’s the basic idea:

The website has assessments for your students, based on what the National Standards say they should learn.  These serve as formative assessment, to inform teachers what their students already know.  Students get feedback as they do the tests and, even better, teachers can get reports on their students performance.  But those reports don’t just tell teachers what students did right and wrong, but it actually diagnoses what students errors in thinking are, and gives teachers instructional strategies for correcting these misconceptions.

Sounds great in theory, but I wonder how it does in practice?  Rhett at dotphysics said it was good for what it is, but there was some limitation (and I’m blanking on what that was).  I’d be curious to hear from anyone using this tool.

Diagnoser currently has a lot in Physical Science (Force, Motion, Sound and Waves, Properties of Matter), plus the Human Body System in Life Sciences.


Doug Holton May 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Diagnoser is nice, but just fyi it’s been around since the early 90s. This is the most popular reference about it:

Hunt, E. and Minstrell, J. (1994). A collaborative classroom for teaching conceptual physics. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice. Cambridge: MIT Press.

sciencegeekgirl May 12, 2009 at 11:51 pm

Thanks, Doug, it is so helpful to have knowledgeable commentors! So, you think that Diagnoser is a good tool for what it’s designed to do? Have you used it? I’m just so curious if it’s helpful in the way that it sounds like it could be.

Rhett May 13, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I am blanking on what I said the limitation was also. hmmmm. think, think, think. Nope. I got nothin.


Melanie Mulhall May 13, 2009 at 4:50 pm


A tool that can detect errors in thinking?! I don’t care how long it has been around, if it can do that in any way, it is a valuable tool. Whether science or the arts, the abiltiy to think, to reason, to transfer a piece of learning from one area to its potential application in another is, I think, the most important thing we can teach children. Content is fine. Helping people learn how to think is even more important.

I’m a fan of philosophy classes at the earliest possible age because of this. I’d also be a fan of any tool that can help teach people how to think for themselves!

I’d love to hear if there is anything else out there like this. Isn’t science grand?!


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