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Differentiating between Initial and Diagnostic Assessment

Ann Gravells is an author, creator of teacher training resources and an education consultant

Initial vs Diagnostic Assessments: What’s the difference?

I must admit, I still get confused between initial and diagnostic assessment. If diagnostic assessment is carried out at the beginning of a programme or session, then why is it not classed as initial assessment?

I’ll attempt here to differentiate between the two from my perspective. I see initial assessment as finding out about the learner as an individual, and diagnostic assessment as finding out their current level of skills, knowledge and understanding towards a particular subject.

I’ve added a few useful weblinks at the end of the article.

Initial assessment

Initial assessments can be used to help you to find out about your learners as individuals, and to identify any particular aspects which might otherwise go unnoticed. It’s best to do this prior to the programme commencing. This will allow time to deal with any issues that might arise, or to guide learners to a different, more appropriate programme if necessary.

Initial assessment can:

  • allow for differentiation and individual requirements to be planned for and met
  • ascertain why your learner wants to take the programme along with their capability to achieve
  • find out the expectations and motivations of your learner
  • give your learner the confidence to negotiate suitable targets
  • identify any information which needs to be shared with colleagues
  • identify any specific additional support needs.

Diagnostic assessment

Diagnostic assessments can be used to evaluate a learner’s skills, knowledge, strengths and areas for development in a particular subject area. It could be that your learner feels they are capable of achieving at a higher level than the diagnostic assessments determine. The results will give a thorough indication of not only the level at which your learner needs to be placed for their subject, but also which specific aspects they need to improve on. Skills tests can be used for learners to demonstrate what they can do, whereas knowledge tests can be used for learners to demonstrate what they know and understand.

Diagnostic tests can also be used to ascertain information regarding English, maths, and information and communication technology (ICT) skills. Information gained from the results of these tests will help you plan to meet any individual needs and/or to arrange further training and support if necessary. Diagnostic assessments can be used as part of the information, advice and guidance (IAG) service if applicable at your organisation.

Diagnostic assessment can:

  • ascertain learning preferences e.g. visual, aural, read/write and kinaesthetic (VARK)
  • enable learners to demonstrate their current level of skills, knowledge and understanding
  • ensure learners can access appropriate support
  • identify an appropriate starting point and level for each learner
  • identify gaps in skills, knowledge and understanding to highlight areas to work on
  • identify previous experience, knowledge, achievements and transferable skills
  • identify specific requirements: for example, English, maths and ICT skills.


There are many different types of initial and diagnostic tests available. Some organisations design and use their own, others purchase and use widely available tests, for example, the system called Basic Key Skills Builder (BKSB) to diagnose English, maths and information and ICT skills. There are some websites listed at the end of this article which you might like to look at. 

How you implement the tests will be according to your organisation’s procedures. However, you don’t want to frighten your learners with too many formal tests before they even start with you. Perhaps some could be carried out online prior to the learner commencing, for example, in their own home using their own device.


There’s a great online learning preference test which only takes about five minutes at – you could try it yourself first to see how easy it is to use.

You don’t always have to use tests, you can just ask questions when it’s appropriate. For example, at the beginning of a new topic during a session, you could ask ‘does anyone have any experience of this?’ This could then promote a discussion to ascertain prior skills, knowledge and understanding.

Using the results

There’s no point using a test if you are not going to analyse and use the results to good effect.

The results of initial and diagnostic assessments should help you negotiate appropriate individual training and assessment plans, or action plans, with your learners. This should ensure they are on the right programme at the right level with the right support they need to succeed.

Recommended Websites:

Ann Gravells is an author, creator of teacher training resources and an education consultant

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This text has been adapted from Gravells A, Principles and Practices of Assessment, London Learning Matters SAGE Publications Ltd. Copyright © 2018 Ann Gravells

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