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


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!/span>

Thanks for reading!

Važi. Ćao! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!
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 Research15(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 science21(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!
The 6 secrets to language learning success

Learning a language doesn’t have to be a daunting task.

Click the button below to access the 6 tips and tricks that will help you learn (or teach!) successfully.

Meet The Author:
Author - Emily Rae Sabo
Emily Rae Sabo
Linguist at Mango Languages
Emily Sabo (Ph.D., University of Michigan): A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics Ph.D. in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Would you rather listen to or watch this content?

Listen to the Podcast

Watch the Video

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We’d also like to set analytics cookies that help us make improvements by measuring how you use the site. These will be set only if you accept.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We’d like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone. For more information on how these cookies work please see our ‘Cookies page’.

Skip to content