Preparing for the Students You Actually Have in Class—Without the Assumptions

teacher talks with students around table with thumbs up

Today’s enrollment trends present an opportunity for faculty to engage an incredibly diverse student body. But to support all of our students, we may need to adjust our thinking about traditional definitions of college readiness. Students are coming at us hard and fast from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences. Because persistence should be a primary concern, any absence of knowledge and skills our students bring with them into our classrooms is a challenge we need to help them manage. Admittedly, this may be less true in specific programs with disciplinary admissions requirements, yet it still benefits us to dispense once and for all with the chimera of college preparedness and better align our teaching with our students’ present understanding.

After all, admitted students aren’t paying for us to endorse knowledge they already have; rather, they are paying dearly for us to guide them to new knowledge. No, we can’t teach them everything, and it goes without saying that we must preserve the integrity of our courses. But we also can’t afford to leave behind large numbers of students because they aren’t yet equipped to handle conventional instructional methods—especially if we trust the research about teaching and learning that suggests our instructional design choices really can either mitigate or exacerbate preventable attrition (Meyer et al., 2009, passim).

Good design is always user-oriented, and that means we need to know our students. As our classes diversify, the assumptions that much of our course preparation rest upon may not be accurate. And often we can’t know one way or the other until the course actually starts. But there is a way to adjust our preparatory approach, allowing us to question our assumptions about students’ abilities. I am proposing a four-step process that will help you add to your regular course preparation a practical diagnostic component. I call this kind of preparation diagnostic planning. Think of diagnostic planning as just-in-time teaching, only on a broader scale. Adopting this kind of planning has also reoriented my primary teaching goals from disengaged coverage of material to the facilitation of measurable student learning.

Step One.

As with all good course design, diagnostic preparation starts with making good decisions about essential outcomes that students must achieve in order to earn credit for the course. These are our fixed points of orientation. How we get students there, however, should at least partly be determined by the students themselves, provided we can diagnose with reasonable accuracy what students can and cannot yet do. When we approach learning outcomes from a coverage perspective, we make decisions about lessons based on the content we think students need to be exposed to in order achieve the outcome. But if we shift to a diagnostic mindset, we refocus on the actions our students will need to be able to do in order to achieve the outcomes. For example, in an advanced rhetoric course I recently taught, students needed to analyze the impact of hyperbole in specific rhetorical situations. Approached from the coverage perspective, my preparation would have progressed immediately to finding readings and writing lectures designed to expose my students to the concept of rhetorically situational hyperbole. However, from the diagnostic perspective, I moved in a different direction entirely.

Step Two.

Identify all the explicit and implicit tasks, behaviors, or habits of mind required to engage with a particular lesson, to complete a particular assignment, or to master a particular concept. These are the essential actions students will need to perform in order to learn. Then, figure out how to determine whether or not, and to what degree, students actually can perform those actions. Here is where the real benefit of diagnostic preparation comes into focus: by preparing short diagnostic exercises for my students, I develop true clarity about the implicit patterns of thinking needed to achieve a syllabus outcome, and I can leverage that clarity to help streamline my lectures, multimedia instructional materials, and even assessments. In my rhetoric course, instead of finding readings and writing lectures, I first identified the composite skills needed to analyze hyperbole in a specific rhetorical situation. The vital prerequisite skill in that case was identifying components of a rhetorical situation. Before developing my instructional materials on analyzing hyperbole, I made a list of all the concepts that go into understanding rhetorical situations.

Step Three.

This step brings us to the actual development of the diagnostic. Any diagnostic exercise you design should be of moderate complexity, achieving whatever level of desirable difficulty is appropriate for the course (see Persellin and Daniels 2018). Application-based multiple-choice quizzing is perfect for this kind of diagnostic (and if your learning management system can auto-grade them, so much the better). In my rhetoric course, I ended up writing a short artifact-analysis multiple choice quiz asking students to identify various components of the Aristotelian rhetorical situation within a short reading.

Step Four.

After designing a diagnostic, predict results at different levels and anticipate the kinds of scaffolding and instruction needed to serve students at those levels. You can build, or utilize, a library of supporting materials, additional learning modules, supplemental readings, or support services. In this way, your preparatory course design becomes instantly more learning-focused. Once I wrote out the rationales for the distractors and the correct answer to my diagnostic quiz on rhetorical situations. I instantly had a much clearer sense of what kind of supporting and supplemental materials I could build into the lesson, as well as target my actual lecture more precisely to the obvious mistakes students would be most likely to make when addressing that specific learning outcome.

A quick word about the hidden value of support. Whether our students actually utilize scaffolding is not really our primary concern. We can’t underestimate the value of having our student feel supported by us from the outset, especially during those moments of terrifying disorientation they are likely to experience in any given class. Scaffolding and explicit instruction signifies support, even if it isn’t fully taken advantage of. The supportive environment you create through diagnostic planning may inspire your students to stay engaged, encourage making mistakes, and embolden them to apply your feedback, which is how transferrable learning happens in the first place.

I encourage you to break free of your assumptions about what students should be able to do before they get into your classroom. Diagnostic planning will help you design and deliver courses that mitigate preventable attrition, support students from a variety of backgrounds, and deliver more effective and efficient instruction.


Meyer, K. A., Bruwelheide, J., & Poulin, R., “Why they stayed: Near-perfect retention in an online certification program in library media,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 13, no.3 (2009), 99−115.

Persellin, D.C., and M. B. Daniels. A Concise Guide to Teaching with Desirable Difficulties. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2018.

Further Reading:

Nilson, Linda, and Ludwika A. Goodson. Online Teaching at Its Best: A Merger of Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Bio: Matthew Vickless, PhD, has held various teaching appointments since 2009, most recently as assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies. Additionally, as dean of a school of professional studies at a small private career college, Vickless encouraged practitioner faculty to utilize evidence-based teaching practices and supported college-wide reinvestment in student support services. Currently, he is transitioning into a fully online adjunct, which will allow him to stay home with his pre-K son and pursue independent scholarship.