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Why Formative Assessments are a teacher’s biggest secret power (+ 3 simple tips for using them in your language classroom!)

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Welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language! 
Zdravo! Kako si? In this article, we’re talking about one of the biggest secret powers language teachers have at our disposal: formative assessments! What are they, why do they matter, and how can you seamlessly incorporate more of them into your language class? Well, 前置きはさておき (‘without further ado’ in Japanese), let’s get to it!

What are formative assessments?

Formative_Assessments 1

Formative Assessments are tests - but they’re not just any tests. They are tests for the purposes of student learning & practicing - not for teacher evaluation or grading.

They stand in contrast to summative assessments (think final exams), which are big, important tests that serve as the teacher’s main mechanism for evaluating and grading student learning after a unit or course has ended. A good mnemonic device for remembering the difference between formative and summative assessments is that formative assessments help students get informed on their current learning progress, while summative assessments help teachers summarize how much the student learned by the end of the unit. The defining characteristic of formative assessments is its timing: it happens during the learning process, not after. Examples of formative assessment include low-stakes mini-quizzes, comprehension checks, and active learning questions during class. And wouldn’t you know it - that “low-stakes” part is a really important feature of effective formative assessments. More on that in just a moment...

Why do Formative Assessments matter?

Simply put, they make for effective learning!

Here are 3 fast facts about Formative Assessments:

  • Formative assessments are a form of “low-stakes, high-rewards” student learning. Grade anxiety can be counterproductive to learning. Formative assessments that are ungraded (or graded just for completion) are one of the best ways to provide your students with learning opportunities that are low-stakes, high rewards; low-stakes because grades are detached from the task and high-reward because students are able to focus fully on identifying their learning gaps in the language. 

  • Formative assessments are a form of active learning for students. The are a form of active (rather than passive) learning. This is important because active learning helps students reinforce and re-organize knowledge in their minds while also identifying their own learning gaps. When we don’t use active learning strategies like formative assessments with our students, they can fall prey to something called the Fluency Illusion. The Fluency Illusion is basically a cognitive artifact of the human mind; it impacts language learning because it leads students to believe they understand more about the language than they actually do. Want to know more about the Fluency Illusion and active learning strategies you can use with your students? Check out this blog here!

  • Data from formative assessments help teachers teach better. When students aren’t able to answer questions on a quiz, that’s informative for them to identify their learning gaps. And it’s just as informative for us as their teachers because then we know what to focus on in order to help them address those learning gaps.  If you’d like to learn more about the research behind formative assessments in language learning and teaching, check out the suggested readings linked down at the end of this article!

3 easy ways to use formative assessments in your class

#1 Implement a “Tickets Out” activity at the end of every class 

These are essentially planned “pop quizzes.” You’ll make it a routine and students will come to expect it - but they’ll never know what the questions are going to be in advance. It’s simple - you include a couple short questions that students must respond to upon leaving class - and the questions will be directly connected to what you covered in class that day. Pro-tip: consider grading them only for completion to reduce students’ grade anxiety.

#2 Ask your students more questions during class 

As the teacher, you spend a good deal of time explaining things. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be doing all (or even most) of the thinking! As you explain a topic or answer a question, routinely throw in a comprehension check question or two to your students. Think of yourself as a singer on stage who frequently tosses the mic back to the crowd for crowd engagement. These little comprehension checks are actually a big deal -  because they’re a kind of effective formative assessment. They help your students understand what they know and what they don’t. They also help you get a pulse on where they’re at, which you can use to inform your lesson planning. 

#3 Have your students use the Mango Languages app!

The Mango app offers a convenient form of formative assessment supplement for the language learning classroom. Outside of class, students get to complete low stakes, high rewards lessons with frequent lesson quizzes -- and they come to class ready to put that learning into action. It’s perfect for a flipped classroom approach.

To recap…

  • Formative assessments are quizzes and comprehension checks that are low-stakes, high rewards because they actively facilitate learning and help students identify their knowledge gaps.

  • To incorporate formative assessments in your language classroom, try (1) incorporating a Tickets Out routine, (2) ask your students more questions during class, and (3) have your students use the Mango Languages app outside of class!

Thanks for reading! 
Važi. Ćao! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!


For more language teacher content, join the Mango fam! 

Want to explore more of the research underlying this article? 

  • Check out this case study article: Lantolf, J. P., & Poehner, M. E. (2011). Dynamic assessment in the classroom: Vygotskian praxis for second language development. Language Teaching Research, 15(1), 11–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168810383328

  • Check out this overview article: Carpenter, S. K. (2012). Testing enhances the transfer of learning. Current directions in psychological science, 21(5), 279-283.

  • Check out this foundational book: Poehner, M. E. (2008). Dynamic assessment: A Vygotskian approach to understanding and promoting L2 development (Vol. 9). Springer Science & Business Media.

*Psst - note that in these suggested readings, some scholars use the term “dynamic assessments” instead of “formative assessments.” For most intents and purposes, you can think of these terms as interchangeable. 

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English (recording language)

  • Serbian | Zdravo! Kako si? is ‘Hello! How are you?’’ and Važi. Ćao! is ‘Ok. Bye!’ 

  • Japanese | 前置きはさておき (maeoki-wa sate oki) means 'without further ado' (literally translates as ‘setting aside introductory remarks’) 

  • Interested in learning English, Serbian, Japanese, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!


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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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