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Diagnostic Essay Guidelines

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What is a diagnostic essay?

A diagnostic essay is a short and challenging first writing assignment for students in your FWS. The purpose of a diagnostic essay is to help you get a quick sense of where individual students are at as writers when they start the class. The point is not to punish students—the assignment should be low-stakes—but rather, to help you develop assignments and activities appropriately geared towards where student writers are developmentally and to assess whether or not you have any writers who might benefit from additional support (i.e., referring them to Writing Workshop courses or our tutoring support options).

What to do if you are concerned about a student's writing?

If you are concerned about a student’s ability to comfortably succeed in your FWS or if you feel as though a student might need more individual attention than you can reasonably provide, you should consult with Writing Workshop faculty to determine what support services we recommend. Follow this link to submit an FWS Instructor Referral.


In terms of logistics, diagnostic essays should be…

  • Assigned during the first week of classes;
  • Read & assessed quickly, no later than the third week of classes;
  • Low-stakes (not-graded);

Diagnostic essay assignments should be…

  • Challenging, pushing students to enact analytical thinking and writing;
  • Asking students to write with a text (especially if this is the main type of writing students will do in your course);
  • Anywhere from 1-3 pages;
  • Small in scope;
  • Fun and engaging intellectually, as this will be students’ first work in your course.


Examples of Useful Diagnostic Assignments

There are many options for what a successful diagnostic essay might ask students to write; however, here are a few ideas that we believe are small in scope and challenging. We do hope that if you come up with an alternative option, you’ll share it with us, so we can highlight it here.

  1. Pull a particularly interesting longer quote on your course topic, perhaps from a reading you will assign at some point during the semester. Ask writers to first explain what the quote means and then apply it to their own experiences with the subject.
  2. Pick two quotes that represent competing views that relate to your course theme. Ask writers to explain each perspective and evaluate the perspectives, being sure to provide evidence from their own experiences in their analysis.
  3. Pick a photograph or piece of art that relates to your course theme. Pose a question that encourages students to analyze the image in relation to some of the key questions you hope to explore in the class. Encourage students to use the image as evidence in their answers.
  4. Ask students to complete a short reading that relates to your course theme. Ask them to first explain what they think the reading means, and then you could: 1. Ask a specific question they should use the reading to help answer; 2. Use the reading the analyze their own experiences with the issue; or, 3. Pose questions or evidence that complicates specific points in the reading.