Diagnostic and Formative Assessment

Diagnostic Pre-Assessments

Diagnostic assessments (also known as pre-assessments) provide instructors with information about student's prior knowledge and misconceptions before beginning a learning activity. They also provide a baseline for understanding how much learning has taken place after the learning activity is completed. Instructors usually build concepts sequentially throughout a course. For example, the Coriolis effect may be taught prior to a unit on ocean currents. A diagnostic pre-assessment given after the Coriolis effect activity but before the Ocean current activity will provide an opportunity to determine if students remember the concepts they need. If some students don't remember, then a refresher will make the Ocean current activity more meaningful to your students. Diagnostic assessment data may be gleaned from:

  • Summative assessments of the previous learning activity.
  • Short assessments that focus on key knowledge and concepts such as ConcepTests and Minute Papers (more info)

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments take place during a learning activity to provide the instructor with information regarding how well the learning objectives of a given learning activity are being met. The value of formative assessment is pointed out by Black and William'(1998) paper "Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment" (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1998) They point to evidence that high quality formative assessment has a powerful impact on student learning. In addition, formative assessment is particularly effective for students who have not done well in school, narrowing the gap between low and high achievers while raising overall achievement. Most instructors intuitively use questioning as a method of formative assessment but in large lecture classes not every student can be questioned because of time constraints. Formative assessment is also useful in virtually all learning activities such as preparing oral and written reports, fieldwork and as projects and case studies progress. Here is an example of using on-going formative assessment in a large lecture course.


  • The Geoscience Concept Inventory WebCenter includes a collection of questions you can use for diagnostic or formative assessment.
  • Assessing How Students Learn is a short article that describes several methods for finding out what learning strategies your students are using.
  • Gather Evidence of Learning from the Lesson Study Project for College Teachers. This site describes how to gather evidence of student learning, thinking, and engagement in your classroom.