How to Identify Students’ Needs in the Online Classroom: Initial vs Diagnostic Assessment

initial vs diagnostic assessment

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When it comes to teaching online, we might consider different learning styles, but rarely, as online course creators, do we consider identifying other student needs.

Because every student has some type of learning need or another.

But I want to go a little further than that.

Besides from the need for safety, feeling nurtured, taught in collaboration, and working with those in digital poverty, there’s also the need to identify and meet the needs of students with special educational needs (SEN).

What is SEN?

SEN stands for Special Educational Needs and covers a range of needs including:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyscalculia
  • ADHD
  • ADD
  • Autism

There are a lot of other SEN out there, I’ve just named a few to get you thinking.

Why do we need to identify the needs of online students?

You might be wondering about the need for identifying the needs of your online students. After all, you’re teaching your skill to your niche, you’re not necessarily a qualified teacher.

And that’s a fair point.

But let me come back to you with some statistics:

  • Dyslexia affects approximately 20% of the population
  • The estimated prevalence rate of ADHD in adults is nearly 5%
  • Up to 6% of the population has dyspraxia, with males being more likely to be affected than females

Hopefully, now you see the need to identify and meet the needs of your online students. Because there is a strong probability that at some point or another, your course will be taken by someone with SEN.

And because of that, you want to try and make your course as accessible as possible.

But remember: inclusive learning doesn’t just benefit students with SEN. Ultimately, inclusive learning benefits everyone.

Fundamentally, the purpose of identifying the needs of individual learners is to enable you as the teacher to:

  • Plan an inclusive online course
  • Understand the motivation of your students for undertaking your online course
  • Create a learner-centred process of learning
  • Meet the individual needs of your students

Diagnostic assessments in online learning

Depending on how you teach your course, a diagnostic assessment might help you better prepare your online course for your students.

A diagnostic assessment is an assessment that helps to identify a student’s learning problems so that you can provide a course that meets those problems.

And why is this relevant?

Well, it’s because a diagnostic assessment helps you to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your students before they start your course.

There is a range of ways in which you can implement diagnostic assessments in your online course including:

  • A numeracy test for students to complete prior to enrollment
  • A written test for students to complete prior to enrollment
  • Problem-solving quizzes

These suggestions won’t be relevant to every online course. But, if your online course requires a certain level of digital skills for your student to be able to complete the course, you might like to have your prospective student complete a short quiz first. The results from this quiz will help you to advise your student if this is the right programme for them or not.

And if you’re worried about extra work, then don’t be.

You can find software to automate a quiz. If a student received above a certain score then they will receive a message saying that the programme is right for them. If not, they receive a message recommending a foundation course or further study before enrolling on your course.

It’s important, though, to ensure that any diagnostic assessment that you do use is worthwhile to both you and your prospective students. Having a diagnostic assessment for the sake of it won’t be useful to anyone.

Initial assessments in online learning

Initial assessments help you to find out more about your students as individuals people.

When done correctly, initial assessments can:

  • Help you gauge the individual requirements of your students
  • Empower your students to negotiate suitable targets
  • Identify more specific support needs

As with diagnostic testing, initial testing needs to be meaningful to both you and your learners in order for both the get the best out of the activity.

Let’s say you’re running an online course about creating a blog. Your enrollment for the programme opens on a set date and you want to ensure that your course meets the needs of all of your learners. Here are some things that you can gather information on to tailor your programme to your individual students:

Identify prior achievements

Identifying prior achievements helps students to:

  • See how far they have come
  • What they have already
  • What they are capable of achieving

You also get to see your student’s prior knowledge.

Identifying these prior achievements and knowledge assists you in pitching your teaching at the right level for your students.

If you have someone sign up for your introduction to blogging course, you might find that they already have the foundations down and what they need is a higher-level course that focuses on blog growth rather than set-up.

To gain this information from your student, you could have them fill out a questionnaire before enrolling on your course, or set up a Discovery Call or webinar with prospective students.

Build on current knowledge and skills

Gauging current knowledge and skills can be done formally or informally.

For example, through students filling out a questionnaire before they start or through a group discussion at the beginning of a curriculum.

Similar to identifying prior achievements, having information on the current knowledge and skills of your students helps you to appropriately gauge teaching and assessment materials.

Ownership of learning

Initial and diagnostic assessments can lead to various development opportunities for your students.

Depending on what you are teaching or how you are teaching your subject, the information you gain from your initial and diagnostic assessments can feed into action and individual learning plans.

Action plans are a fantastic learner-centred tool that helps your students achieve their best potential outcomes.

Additionally, such plans enable ownership of learning.

Specific educational learning needs

SEN can be identified in initial or diagnostic assessments. As an online course creator, it’s not necessarily your job to be asking about these needs if you aren’t going to do anything with the information. However, if you can provide some sort of additional support, then it may be worth asking.

Also, remember that it isn’t your job to support students in areas you have no information or expertise. It isn’t fair on your student or yourself for you to offer to provide support in SEN that you have little or no knowledge of.

SEN are far more complex than they may appear at face value. For example, dyslexia isn’t just about reading skills. If learners do ask for support, ask them what type of support they would be after and be honest with them if you can’t provide what they need.

Motivation for learning

During an initial or diagnostic assessment, it can be useful to figure out your students’ motivation for undertaking your course.

Answers may range from wanting to upskill, to create a new revenue of passive income, to grow as an individual, or any other reason personal to them.

Personally, I find that those students who are motivated by personal growth and development are more likely to engage and focus on their online learning.

It is important to understand motivation in learning because this will enable you to help your students best channel their motivation into concrete outputs of learning.

Should your students falter in their motivation towards their learning, you can remind them of their initial reasons for starting their learning, thereby encouraging continuance of study.

At the beginning of your course, it can be really useful to encourage your students to write down why they are taking your course and what they want to get out of it.

They can then refer back to this throughout their course, however short or long it is. Such a simple exercise can have a powerful impact on students’ motivation and help increase the completion rates of your course.

This post was proofread using Grammarly.

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