The Diagnoser Project

The Diagnoser Project Tools are available for free at

The intructional tools for teachers available at the Diagnoser website are organized into topics or strands, such as Characteristic Properties of Matter.  For each strand there is a conceptual story that describes how students might progress through learning each topic including the various ways they might be thinking that could get in the way of a deep understanding. There are several diagnostic units within each strand (e.g., Density Concepts, Melting-Boiling Points, etc... for the Characteristic Properties of Matter strand). 

For each Diagnostic Unit, there are the following resources: 

Quick Links:

Diagnostic Learning Environment
Diagnoser References

Current and Past Funders:

Learning Goals (Aligned with National Science Education Standards and Bendchmarks for Scientific Literacy)

Facet Cluster (i.e., a grouping of productive and unproductive facets of student ideas, with as much structure as possible.  Includes the explicit learning goals in addition to various reasoning, conceptual, and procedural difficulties)

Elicitation Question(s) (i.e., pencil-and-paper questions that can be delivered to students to elicit their prior ideas about a subject)

Developmental Lesson(s) (i.e., a conceptual story for instruction of a very small set of concepts in a particular topical area)

Diagnoser Question Sets (i.e., web-delivered sets of multiple-choice and open-ended research-based formative assessment probes. Students receive feedback on their thinking as they work through their assignment. Teachers can access reports on students' thinking related to the assigned content.)

Prescriptive Activities (i.e., topic-dependent suggestions  for instructional interventions to help individual students or small groups, whose answers to the Diagnoser Question sets are consistent with specific problematic facets)

History of the Diagnoser Project by Jim Minstrell:
In 1985 I was invited to a small conference to think about the use and value of technology in education.  For about ten years, I had been conducting research on students’ conceptual understanding and reasoning but essentially had not used computer technology beyond word processing and a bit of statistical analysis.  Since the product of the conference was to be a book (Technology in Education: Looking toward 2020), I was at first at a loss as to what to write about.  The editors, Ray Nickerson and Philip Zodhiates, encouraged me to write a chapter about my vision for how technology might be able to assist in my teaching of high school physics. 

I did go on to write that chapter, titled “Teacher’s assistants: What could technology make feasible?” (Minstrell, 1988)   One of the tools I envisioned was a technical assistant that could help diagnose students’ conceptual understanding and reasoning, both achievement of learning goals and identification of problematic aspects of thinking that might get in the way of their achievement.  That “assistant” has since been realized in a primitive form in various iterations of the Diagnoser Tools.

In 1987 the James S. McDonnell Foundation Cognitive Studies for Educational Practice funded work to be done by myself and my colleague Earl Hunt from the University of Washington.  We proposed to organize the “misconceptions” research into a classroom useable form and to create technical tools to assist with diagnosis of misconceptions. 

The task of organizing the conceptions research was troublesome, since there all sorts of problematic aspects to students’ thinking and many were not misconceptions.  I was influenced by the Knowledge in Pieces perspective of Andy diSessa.  Some students just showed lack of a piece of declarative knowledge, others misapplied procedures, others problematic pieces to their reasoning.  Much of the thinking, while not representative of the learning goal, did have correct aspects along with problematic aspects.  For example, conceiving of air pressure as causing objects to fall, while not conceiving of Earth as interacting with the falling object, at least did conceive of gravity as an interaction with something outside the object, i.e. that air.  Thus, our working group of teachers and researchers began referring to these schemata used by students as their “facets of thinking”. 

For the next two years I, with the assistance of my teacher colleagues, accumulated students’ facets of thinking in high school physics and organized them into facet clusters about some key idea (e.g., meaning of average velocity) or some classical event (e.g., explaining falling bodies.)  These facets and facet clusters became the interpretive framework behind the construction of assessment tools and the redesigning of lessons to address problematic facets of thinking.  The early version of Diagnoser Tools, called the Physics Pedagogy Program, was shared with and tested by fellow physics teachers in the State of Washington.  Example assessments and lessons based on facets helped teachers create a more diagnostic learning environment in their classrooms.  Facets also became the framework for designing technical assistance tools for diagnosing students’ facets of thinking.

The earliest computerized portion of Diagnoser tools were programmed in 1989 by Earl Hunt and colleagues at the University of Washington.  It comprised sets of questions associated with each particular facet cluster.  In collaboration with teachers we designed the system to pattern typical interactions between a teacher and student when the teacher was trying to identify/diagnose the sort of trouble a student was having in solving problems.  Physics modules included kinematics, nature and effects of gravity, dynamics, and current electricity

In 1999 with funding from the National Science Foundation, FACET Innovations, UW Department of Psychology, and Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction collaboratively developed a web-delivered version of the question sets and Teacher Guide materials aligned with some of the Essential Academic Learning Requirements for science and mathematics for the State of Washington.  This Washington State version of Diagnoser has been retired because the software became obsolete.

Development started for a National Version of the Diagnoser Project tools in 2001, which was later launch in the fall of 2003.  This version was started in collaboration with UCLA’s Department of Education Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.  FACET Innovations built a free web-served diagnostic instructional tools for middle and high school teachers and students. These tools, which include web-served assessments, are aligned with the National Science Education Standards and the Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy in science.  This new alignment helped as the teacher user group of the tools grew beyond Washington State. 

Current topics include Force and Motion, Waves, Human Body Systems, and Properties of Matter.  These materials can be found at