Why Did That Student Fail? A Diagnostic Approach To Teaching

When students struggle in school, it can be for a variety of reasons.

From their grasp of content and literacy skills, to their engagement level, to behavior and organizational issues, to teacher actions, to the proverbial “stuff going on at home,” the possibilities are maddeningly endless. The following 8-step process is a valuable tool for me as a teacher, so I thought I’d share a version of it here in hopes that it might help you. It was useful not only for me to see what strategic responses I had available to me as a teacher, but it was also useful for students to come to know what to expect.

It also was valuable in teacher conferences, and in discussions with district folks during walk-throughs when they wanted to know how I “responded to non-mastery” (beyond reteach the same busted content in the same broken form with the same ineffective strategies that failed the first time.)

As you can see in the image below, this functions as a kind of hierarchy. The first step is the most broad and most powerful, and worked for the largest number of students. The second step is a bit more narrow, and wasn’t necessary nearly as often as step 1, and so on until step 8 which was necessary for very few students. This model worked effectively in grades 8-12, though I have never used it in elementary.

The Goal Of Diagnostic Teaching

It is important to keep in mind the goal of this process–diagnosis. What’s wrong? What’s the hang-up? What’s getting in the way of learning, or of students proving what they in fact actually know?

No matter what process, model, system, or flowchart you use, as long as you have something designed and documented, you can use and refine it accordingly, keeping you from knee-jerk reactions to non-mastery like repeating yourself, talking louder/faster/slower, holding students after class, calling home, issuing poor grades, having them partner with “good students,” giving them the majority of the answer, and so on.

Diagnostic Teaching: An 8 Step Process To Support Struggling Students

1. Student goal-setting & progress monitoring

2. Complete all missing or incomplete assignments

3. Differentiate assessments on non-mastered standards

4. Isolate and prioritize standards for mastery

5. Choose new materials/resources that feature more transparent illustration of standard

6. Daily use of student exit chart

7. Fundamental curricular & unit design

8. Beyond-the-classroom support systems


The big idea behind Diagnostic Teaching is to illuminate and remove barriers to student understanding. When students have problems, you need to be able to systematically identify and fix them. This probably isn’t a huge difference from what you already do. There may be a slight change in practice, however.

This isn’t about good grades, high-level thinking, compliance, or even understanding. Rather, the goal is to establish a pattern of diagnosis–of diagnostic teaching–so that you shift your focus from teaching & reteaching to systematic, guided diagnoses of academic performance barriers.

This is a seemingly minor but important shift from thinking like a delivery driver or manager to thinking like a doctor or scientist. Another benefit? Helping students and parents see the process so they can begin to do the same.