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Introducing diagnostic questions

In this video Dylan explains how intentional dialogue is more than just talk in the classroom.
DYLAN: Welcome back to the course. The focus of this week’s work is on intentional dialogue, which Chris will summarise in a moment, and on key aspects of the teacher’s role in formative assessment. Amongst other things, we’ll be asking you to review sample transcripts of teacher student dialogue, and we’ll be asking you to self-assess your assessment for learning skills.
CHRIS: Intentional dialogue is more than just talk in the classroom. It’s actually helping reveal explicit thinking on a specific idea or concept. And as such, it requires time and probably a change in pace to allow this to happen. In most classrooms, it requires teachers to say less and learners to say more. So teacher need to hold back and not intervene to soon when either a correct idea, or a wrong idea, or a mistaken keyword emerges. Collecting sufficient and rich evidence and then making a decision about next steps is more likely to be fruitful in the classroom than correcting something the learner says or stepping in and finishing off explanations. Sometimes learners need encouragement to take part actively in discussion.
This might require teachers to use strategies to help them contribute ideas. So just “think-pair-share” which is very popular in primary classrooms and lower secondary. Often it’s about developing a willingness to compare ideas with others. And this can happen through concept cartoons.
Occasionally, it’s about reaching a group consensus and being able to compare their ideas with those of others. In classrooms where teachers bounce ideas raised by one group to another for comment, this can actually lead to much better understanding for both the teacher and the learners. However, it does require the teacher holding back from commenting immediately, as a teacher voice can dominate and close down dialogue in the classroom. So for the classroom to flow, teachers need to think carefully about the strategies they use and how they help their learners.
The focus of this week’s work is on supporting you in creating formatively-driven classrooms by using diagnostic questions. We will look in the main at two ways diagnostic questions can be plan to be used; either to instigate intentional dialogue to help reveal students’ thinking about an idea or concept; or as hinge point questions to check for conceptual understanding before moving on teaching.
A diagnostic question is any question where you do not need to have students explain their answers for you to makes sense of their responses. In other words, if they get it right, they have the right thinking, and if they get it wrong, they have the wrong thinking. Ideally, also, wrong responses are indicative of particular misconceptions.
Amongst other things this week we’ll be asking you to review example transcripts of teacher/student dialogue; and we’ll be asking you to self-assess your own assessment for learning skills.


One possibility for exploring the way you currently use dialogue and questioning is to work with a trusted colleague. Ask them to sit in one of your lessons and time how much you spend talking and how much your students talk. You may find the results of the proportion of time you are talking surprising.
To support you with your learning you can also use the check-list document DOCX. The question prompts for you to reflect on are:
  1. How much time were you as the teacher talking and how much time were the students talking?
  2. How many closed questions did you ask? How many open questions did you ask?
  3. Were your questions in the main recall or challenging ones?
  4. How much time after a question was posed were students given to think and/or discuss it?
  5. How many student ideas did your questions elicit?
Post your reflections on one of these questions in the comments below. Perhaps many of you have had similar experiences?

Additional resources

Think-pair-share is covered in more detail in our Planning for Learning course. You can watch this video which explains how it is implemented in a Year 6 (age 10-11) classroom.
If you are new to concept cartoons, we have a number of resources on the STEM Learning website to use in class and which explain their purpose.
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Introducing Assessment for Learning

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