Diagnostic Writing: The Springboard for Relearning, Reflecting, and Revising

Image via Liviu C. @liviu)con unsplash.com

Earlier this month, the Moving Writers Team collaborated on a post titled “12 Writing Experiences for Processing the Election.” Within the post, I shared an idea where writers use the following prompt to build an argument surrounding the concept of compulsory voting.

A 2006 CollegeBoard FRQ Argument Prompt.

With my beat this school year being about revision, I saw this post as an opportunity to share how a mini-unit in my class – spurred by diagnostic writing – threads together opportunities for students to relearn, reflect, and revise. It doesn’t matter what the prompt or genre is, but more so the process of letting that diagnostic writing run its course. My hope is to remind why it may be worth it to give that diagnostic writing a second look and consider how it might not only jumpstart but frame a set of lessons or a mini-unit in your classroom.

Have Students Flash Draft

How do we start the process with diagnostic writing?

While this is a writing topic I have used often, this year, I intentionally framed it as a diagnostic writing assignment to open up the course with my eleventh-grade writers. I knew that later on I would plan on asking my students to revisit this piece. Students’ only guidance was to read the prompt and write using what they know in 45 minutes.

The intention was to naturally approach the prompt with current writing and thinking patterns – a common objective for diagnostic writing. Beyond merely practicing on-demand writing, I appreciated that the short time frame would allow me to see students’ instinctual and learned writing choices.

Having finished writing it, of course, my students were curious as to what we were going to do with it now. In response, I told them that when we would begin to learn rhetorical analysis first, argument next, and, then, this prompt would come back up in the course. We would return to that piece in due time, but all they needed to know was that the original writing piece was a sort of springboard for everything else.

Relearn and Reinforce

What do students already know? What might students need to learn in a new way?

The beginning of my course moves in this way. We start with learning rhetorical analysis by studying exemplary speeches, essays, and other mentor texts. Then, we pivot to learning about how to write our own arguments. The analogy I like to use with my writers is that we begin as “film critics” and then become the “film directors ourselves.” We go from sitting in the audience (studying, understanding, and critiquing the craft) to being plopped into the director’s chair and tasked with doing the very thing ourselves (using our knowledge to direct the next classic).

Once we turned finished up with rhetorical analysis, I was excited to shift gears into argument. While my students, as 11th graders, have learned about argumentative writing before, I sought to reinforce their foundation of prior knowledge. On top of this, I challenged students to understand the potential for even more complex, organized, and nuanced argumentation (looking at argument in a fresh way). Essentially, it’s all about mixing the old with the new.

To this end, we learned the basics of argument. Through modeling, in class mini-debates, readings, and examples, we explored and discussed what truly makes up a strong and mature argument. We learned about researching and using sound evidence, organizing with the help of the Classical Model, crafting intelligent counterarguments, combatting and avoiding logical fallacies, balancing logic and emotion, and everything else in between.  

I especially focused on encouraging students to consider the vast pool of evidence from which they can choose; students were surprised to realize that even without research, their knowledge from other courses, the newspaper, and the world as they know it came in quite handy.  

A quirky acronym I use with my students to invite them to consider all the possible pools of evidence.

Reflect Together

How can we make the the reflection process more collaborative?

With relearning and reinforcing under our belt, I had students reflect in two ways: as writers and as citizens.

This was where the diagnostic piece came back in (mind you, it had been weeks since we last talked about it). I asked students to bring a copy of their diagnostic piece to class and be ready to look at it with fresh eyes. Urging students to reflect on their writing choices, I asked students that if they were to reapproach it now, what would they do differently? What would they keep?

And with this, students began to look at their diagnostic writing with a bit more wisdom.

As they reflected, they held onto their strongest ideas and clever moments of writing while also reimagining their claims, organization, and evidence with their newfound understanding of building arguments. Frankly, this is consistently part of my philosophy of writing reflection: know your strengths well enough to continue to demonstrate and further develop them and make a game plan for your areas for improvement.

Considering the importance of citizenship, I asked students to think about the topic of compulsory voting and uncover its implication of liberty, of democracy, and of pragmatism. All of a sudden, this was no longer just about the diagnostic writing, but a timely and relevant moment to think and reflect authentically.

In one sense, here were eager and curious soon-to-be (a couple of years away) voters who might appreciate the chance to process one of the most notable shifts in becoming a young adult. In another sense, here were passionate young people trying to make sense of one of the most historic, contentious elections in American history (for frame of reference, many of these lessons were during the week leading up to Election Day). In what felt like perfect timing, the backdrop of current events allowed students to reflect in such a meaningful way.

Seeing myself as merely a facilitator of conversation and thought, I even supplemented in-class discussions with political cartoons that would argue for and against compulsory voting to get students thinking. To keep up with the vibrant discussions and aid them in their understanding, I fielded questions they had about the logistics of our current voting system. Students, of their own volition, brought up questions about the electoral college, past elections, and more. The conversations were buzzing with curiosity and interest and discovery.

One of a few political cartoon students discussed to further consider claims surrounding the topic of compulsory. Illustrations via Nick Anderson.

Because students could discuss with others who were arguing the opposing stance, those conversations gave them the chance to strengthen their major claims and more carefully consider the opposition’s argument. While students began the process with an independent diagnostic writing task, here they were…revisiting those original ideas in a spirited and communal way. This time to reflect was a meaningful collective effort for them to discuss and rethink their arguments before going back to the drawing board to reapproach the prompt. It was just the right experience to precede independent revision. Students could see and feel the power of thinking and reflecting as a group; they were reinvigorated to give it another go.

Revise and Reorganize Evidence

Now, what is the benefit of allowing students to revisit their previous writing?

Next, students began to revisit and revise their diagnostic draft – now with a stronger understanding of argument and a bundle of ideas to make the argument authentic and relevant.

With fresh evidence, a new organization plan, and perhaps a deepened and more nuanced understanding of the topic at hand, they worked to transform their original work.  

A sample of one student’s planning notes for the revision of her diagnostic writing.

Regardless of whether students used a traditional outline or graphically remapped their ideas, it was a joy to see their revision ideas soar. It was rewarding to see their changes in argumentation and organization already developing in this stage of the revision process.

The final step includes students finalizing those revisions and polishing their writing. Currently, my students are putting together sections of their argument following parts of the Classical Model and working through drafts and feedback.

While they are still working on the pieces, my conversations with students as they turn their planning notes and outlines into revised work help me see that growth and progress. Allowing this one prompt to be the vehicle for all of our learning truly encouraged students to go for depth in fostering these crucial writing and thinking skills.

This year, more than others, I must constantly remind myself to plan and teach in a way that truly achieves depth over breadth and affords my students the chance to dive into memorable and authentic writing. This process has been a rewarding way for me not only achieve that but build in a relevant, reoccurring theme in my mini-unit and allow students to build on a baseline for growth. I hope others find a way to see how this approach (no matter the prompt, topic, genre, or focus) can unfold in their own classrooms.


What does diagnostic writing look like in your classroom? What are other ways that you can use diagnostic writing to create springboards for relearning and revising? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.

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