EEF Blog: ECF – Exploring the Evidence: ‘Adaptive Teaching’ and Effective Diagnostic Assessment

The Early Career Framework (or ‘ECF’) is the evidence base which underpins a new entitlement to a structured 2-year package of high-quality professional development for early career teachers. It sets out what early career teachers should be entitled to learn about and learn how to do when entering the teaching profession.

This blog from Research and Policy Manager Harry Madgwick builds on the contents of the ECF to explore how assessment can help teachers adapt teaching to the needs of pupils. 

In the last year, we have acquired a wealth of new words related to health and medicine. Words like ‘incubation’, ‘asymptomatic’ and ‘epidemiology’ have become commonplace in our everyday interactions.

Whilst we should be cautious about applying medical language to education, some processes from health sciences can be helpful in the context of teaching, for example ‘diagnoses’ and ‘prognoses’.

Put simply, diagnosis involves the identification of a problem, barrier, or in medical science – a disease. Prognosis follows the diagnosis, determining the most appropriate course of action for addressing the identified issue, often with a prediction as to the outcome of the intended treatment. 

Diagnosing pupil needs

The diagnosis/prognosis paradigm sits at the heart of great teaching and underpins what most would recognise as formative assessment. Ultimately, to know how best to teach pupils we need some understanding of what they are bringing to the classroom: of how their prior knowledge might lead to pre- and misconceptions, to what extent they are ready to encounter new information, and whether they are motivated to learn and succeed (see our latest guidance report, ‘Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning’). With this information, teachers can adapt their practice, altering the level of challenge and support with which tasks are set, ensuring all pupils can acquire new knowledge and skills without being overwhelmed.


On Adaptive Teaching, the Early Career Framework states that: 

  •  Pupils are likely to learn at different rates and to require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed.
  • Seeking to understand pupils’ differences, including their different levels of prior knowledge and potential barriers to learning, is an essential part of teaching. 
  • Adapting teaching in a responsive way, including by providing targeted support to pupils who are struggling, is likely to increase pupil success.

However, as Alex Quigley’s blog on this subject demonstrates, understanding just one individual pupil’s prior knowledge and thinking is a complex process; doing this with entire classes or year groups can therefore be extremely challenging.

Due to the broad range of school experiences children and young people have had over the past year, it is likely that the variation between pupils’ knowledge is more substantial than usual – a trend captured by the research summarised here. This has made decision-making around what and how to teach even more difficult. 

So, how do teachers – as the Early Career Framework states – adapt to pupils’ needs ‘in a responsive way, including by providing targeted support to pupils who are struggling’, whilst also ‘maintaining high expectations for all’?

Described by Black and Wiliamas an interpretation of a pupils’ “contribution in terms of what it reveals about [their] thinking and motivation”, diagnostic assessment is undoubtedly instrumental to effective adaptive teaching. 

It is of course possible to use diagnostic assessment ineffectively. By employing unsuitable tests to determine which pupils receive interventions or making unwarranted judgements on pupil understanding from limited questioning techniques, diagnostic processes could have negative impacts on pupils’ opportunities and learning. For example, using a past SATS or GCSE paper to isolate pupil misconceptions is unlikely to provide the sort of information teachers need to make nuanced judgments about pupil understanding. 


To adapt teaching to the needs of pupils, the Early Career Framework states that, without creating unnecessary workload, teachers can develop an understanding of different pupil needs, and provide opportunities for all pupils to experience success by:

  • Identifying pupils who need new content further broken down.
  • Making use of formative assessment.
  • Adapting lessons, whilst maintaining high expectations for all, so that all pupils have the opportunity to meet expectations.
  • Planning to connect new content with pupils' existing knowledge or providing additional pre-teaching if pupils lack critical knowledge.

When used effectively though – to identify prior knowledge 2, understanding, and pupil progress – diagnostic assessment can help us adapt our teaching to the specific need and difficulties pupils experience. This does not mean that teachers should design separate tasks or teach alternative content to pupils of different attainment levels, but rather use diagnostic information to make small regular changes to practice, addressing errors and targeting the areas for improvement through appropriate levels of scaffolding, support, and challenge This approach to adaptive teaching and assessment is integral to high quality teaching. It informs targeted teacher support, flexible grouping, and planned cooperative learning3.

Teachers are constantly diagnosing pupils’ understanding in order to make appropriate adaptations to their needs. Ensuring diagnostic assessments are effective is therefore likely to lead to healthier prognoses for pupils. 

The Education Endowment Foundation independently assessed and endorsed the evidence that underpins the Early Career Framework and have also quality assured the training content developed from it, ensuring materials build upon the best available evidence. This blog series – ‘ECF – Exploring the Evidence…’ aims to build upon the content underpinning the ECF.   

Underpinning references from the Early Career Framework

  1. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31. See here.
  2. Deunk, M. I., Smale-Jacobse, A. E., de Boer, H., Doolaard, S., & Bosker, R. J. (2018) Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review, 24(February), 31–54. See here.
  3. Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Well-being, S. (2018) Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning. See here.