What is Formative Assessment?
Formative assessment is a range of procedures conducted by teachers that monitor student learning during the learning process. These procedures have a dual purpose:
- To help teachers check student progress and recognise where their students are struggling, giving them the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of their own practices and make changes if required.
- To help students identify their strengths and weaknesses so that they can take an active role in their own learning, an important step in them achieving learning progress.
Formative assessment is used in conjunction with summative assessment, which compares learning to standards or benchmarks in the form of educational outcomes, typically at the end of a module, unit or time period.
Why is Formative Assessment especially important for ESL students?
Formative assessment is important for every student studying a subject or taking a course. However, it is particularly important for students in a TESOL classroom.
Any high school, college or university subject or course has a specific end date, with specific learning objectives to be achieved. Once the subject or course is complete, the necessity for a student to continue to focus on those learning objectives is either nil or greatly diminished.
On the other hand, learning English is not merely a subject or course – it is also a life skill, and life of course has no specific end date.
And there are an infinite number of learning objectives an ESL student can have, depending on why they want to learn English.
So, formative assessment for ESL students can have a significant impact on major life options and decisions.
Being able to check progress and identify strengths and weaknesses will have major ramifications on where a student can live and what employment prospects are available.
Every TESOL teacher therefore needs to understand that they have a responsibility, even a duty, to conduct high quality formative assessments that position their students to not only succeed in the classroom, but in life outside the classroom as well.
Formative Assessment Characteristics
For formative assessment to be effective, it needs to be:
While the need to complete all curriculum elements for ESL students is usually not as important as for primary, high school, or university students, TESOL teachers are still required to meet expectations regarding the covering of course work.
This means that there needs to be time limits set on all aspects of a lesson, including: reviewing homework answers, giving extra explanations or examples regarding an exercise studied in class, and dealing with class disruptions due to a variety of possible issues.
So, quick formative assessments allow for greater teaching flexibility – but of course, speed should not trump effectiveness.
There’s a strong case for asserting that there should be weekly formative assessment for ESL students.
Because they are communicating in a second language, they are much more susceptible to personal and external factors that can compromise learning.
This means that in Week X, a student might be facing a wave of issues that might not be present in Week Y.
So, for an English Language Teacher and their students to get an accurate picture of progress being made, ongoing formative assessment makes sense.
Consistent formative assessment means that no matter what cohort of students you have, you’ll achieve comparable outcomes.
This characteristic is far more important in summative assessment where assessment decisions carry so much more weight.
Still, TESOL teachers when conducting formative assessment still need to ensure that their decisions and comments are completely lacking in bias, and that they are not favouring one subset of students over another.
Consistency is important for the sake of fairness and for the need to generate and retain confidence in the teacher and their classroom management.
Consistency does not imply that assessment processes must be uniform. Learners and environments vary. English Language Teachers must be allowed to choose types of assessment that suit their current learners and their assessment context.
Types of Formative Assessment
Review Tests / Quizzes
When I was working as an English Language Teacher in a language school, students would initially be placed in a particular level. Each level would last for 12 weeks, with summative assessment in Weeks 4, 8, and 12.
This meant that we’d have a review test in Weeks 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, and 11. After a review test, I’d go over the answers with the class and give feedback.
These tests were an efficient way to check if students had mastered the language covered during the week.
Peer assessment is perhaps the least valuable type of formative assessment in terms of consistency. Still, research shows that when students are assessed by their peers, they tend to pay more attention to detail in their work.
Also, students will often accept constructive criticism more readily from a classmate than their teacher.
I believe that in order to be effective, homework should be given at least twice a week.
Homework is important not only because it helps students to understand what they are currently studying. It’s also important because it ensures students use English outside the classroom – a very important step in students becoming autonomous learners.
Teachers should observe the frequency and quality of student participation in the classroom when working alone, when interacting in pairs or in a small group, and when contributing to general class discussions.
Teachers need to be aware of participation levels so that they can encourage good participation to continue and poor participation to improve.