Why you need to start the term with a diagnostic

A student's learning ability is the key to understanding what classwork is suited to their needs, but what makes up their ability?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
January 20, 2022

Student backgrounds and the spread of ability

Each term excited and hopeful students join the classroom ready to take on the year ahead with their teacher to guide and support them along the way. In the first few weeks of term students' personalities come out, friendship groups are formed and learning abilities start to reveal themselves. 

A student's learning ability is the key to understanding what classwork is suited to their needs, but what makes up their ability? A student's background plays a big part. Did they receive tasks in previous years that were too easy or too hard? Get support from parents or a tutor? Have a nurturing environment to complete their homework? If they struggled, was it a lack of motivation or lack of understanding? Trying to gather all of this information for a class of students is almost impossible. Yet every year, it's left up to teachers to start fresh and solve the important question of where students sit on the learning continuum. 

Slowly but surely whilst following along with the curriculum requirements, the spread of ability starts to appear. It becomes clear who is ahead needing more of a challenge and who sits further behind, still needing to develop basic skills. Unfortunately, this simple overview of the spread of ability doesn't show us the detail that we need to see of every student's understanding of every aspect of the curriculum. 

And just as teachers uncover this basic overview of the spread of ability, so do students. It’s hard not to notice when you are all expected to complete the same work, in the same time frame, do the same tests and receive marked papers back all at the same time. It makes it very easy to compare yourself and your scores to the people sitting around you even though everyone is at completely different points in their learning. 

Once the comparison culture sets in, students start slotting themselves and their peers into groups of maths people and non-maths people, which can pick away at self-worth and motivation levels. And just as quickly as the excited students walked into class at the start of Term 1, the students walking out at the end of term can have completely different mindsets. 

Understanding how students learn to teach them effectively

Prior knowledge has long been considered the most important factor influencing learning and student achievement. This is because learning takes place on a continuum, so when we provide students with classwork that is aligned with their prior knowledge, we are supporting the ongoing development of their knowledge base. According to neuroscience research when students learn new information they connect this to existing knowledge and store this as networks in the brain called Schemas. These connections make it possible to understand new concepts, apply them to activities and continue building strong knowledge foundations. 

Inadequate or fragmented prior knowledge is an important issue to consider. If there is a mismatch between the instructors' expectations of student knowledge and the student's actual knowledge base, learning may be hampered from the start. If we skip steps in learning and introduce topics or concepts before a student is ready, it can be hard to fully grasp what is being taught, especially in the short time frames allocated to lessons. And before we know it, it’s time to move on to the next part of the curriculum, with many students having not mastered what was expected or risking rote learning instead of meaningful understanding. This is how gaps start to form throughout the year and the longer we ignore them, the larger they grow.

When we allow students to learn on a continuum, it not only builds strong foundations in their understanding but also forges a growth mindset. Growth mindsets are fueled by the power of yet when a student can see a problem they need to overcome they have the confidence to enter into productive struggle and use their prior knowledge to solve the task at hand. ‘I can’t solve this problem yet, but I will be able to.’ When we look at our students as individuals with unique abilities and work to meet their specific needs, we can shift their mindsets in the process, removing those limiting thoughts and comparisons to their peers. 

The best way to access prior knowledge and have an impact in the classroom

The information uncovered about our students' prior knowledge during class time only scratches the surface of what we really need to know. Their background information isn’t readily available and the spread of ability takes too long to uncover and is unable to offer the detail we need to personalise every lesson. 

So how can we access the student data we need to uncover gaps and personalise learning? A tool that tests for understanding across the whole curriculum is the best way to access this data and the Maths Pathway Diagnostic Tool does just that. In 30 minutes you can access individual learning profiles, group students using class data all whilst reducing admin with our curriculum-aligned teacher resources. Another great aspect of the Diagnostic Tool is it’s completely free for teachers in Australia. 

The data and reports the Diagnostic Tool generates allow teachers to pinpoint exactly where students need support or extension in their work and successfully implement targeted intervention through one-on-one or small group sessions. It’s easy to allocate students into small group sessions when you can see what they have mastered for each concept in an easy-to-read grid. Our Mini-Lesson (small group) generator is another valuable resource that automatically creates a list of students and suggests a lesson that covers a topic they are all ready to learn. You can compare your class data with other classes which is perfect for collaborating with colleagues and planning for the whole year level. The data that is extracted can also be shared with parents, students and school leaders making parent-teacher interviews and reporting time more manageable. 

It’s easy to have an impact when we understand student gaps and competencies. Especially when we can gain these insights early on in Term 1 and use them to set and track goals for the year. By taking the pressure off interpreting student abilities, we create more time and capacity to focus on effective ways to deliver content. Having this time to plan impactful lessons, extension work, and organise one-on-one time with students is the key to progress

Once we have access to class data, planning and running whole class lessons is a breeze. It’s simple to pick out a topic that the majority of students are ready for and find a lesson plan, rich task or energiser that combines concept mastery with the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

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