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by Erica Fischer on Feb 24, 2012

Using Formative Assessments to Enhance Learning

Hey everyone, and welcome back to #langchat! To start off your weekend, we have a fantastic and informative summary below on our discussion this week. Our topic was on formative assessment, specifically: How can formative assessments enhance instruction? Thanks to everyone for showing up and participating; we had a fun discussion with lots of great ideas shared. Special thanks to our moderators for the night, Kristy Placido (@placido) and Erica Fischer (@CalicoTeach), for volunteering to help guide the conversation — never an easy feat with such passionate participants!

Using Formative Assessments to Enhance LearningWhat is Formative Assessment?

We assess students to understand what they have acquired from our instruction. The purpose of formative assessment is to adapt and accommodate our instruction based on student needs and readiness, to determine if we have achieved our goals and whether we can continue or should reteach the language (@Lauren_Scheller, @NinaTanti1, @cadamsf1).

Formative assessment guides us in many ways. It helps us to appropriately scaffold (@Lauren_Scheller) and provides feedback to us and to the students (@NinaTanti1). Use formative assessment to check for understanding and adjust your instruction based on what you’ve found.

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Do we grade formative assessments?

Often, formative assessments are not graded. We focus on qualitative rather than quantitative feedback. @docseiler usually doesn’t grade her student assessments; she chooses instead to focus on building a dialogue with students.

While we won’t usually grade formative assessments, we might want to consider tracking them to see trends and improvements (@placido).

How does formative assessment differ from summative (traditional) assessment?

At base, we use formative assessment to alter our instruction and guide us toward discovering what students need more of, as compared to traditional quizzes that often serve to see what students don’t know (@Lauren_Scheller). Formative assessment transforms thinking about grades or points to thinking about progress or acquisition of the language (@placido).

Often, summative assessment, which is used to summarize or assess the development of learners at a specific time, can be used to identify weaknesses that formative assessment can then build on. A handy contrast is to think of summative assessment as assessment of learning, while formative assessment is assessment for learning (Wikipedia).

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Formative Assessment Examples

If you’re looking for some specific examples of what you can do in class, check out these participant-suggested activities. We shared lots of great ideas and discussion on how to implement them in class.

Many participants like quick comprehension checks that are easy to implement in class, and students often enjoy them as well. Some examples we discussed are below. For more, see the Further Reading section below for some resources from @placido, or this #langchat summary on making kids comfortable with the immersion classroom.

  • @sraoconnor likes methods such as Traffic Lighting, where students hold up a colored traffic light to represent how much they understand, and 10 (or 5) Fingers Up, where students hold up a number of fingers to represent how much they get it.
  • @NinaTanti1 likes Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down to communicate whether students are comprehending.
  • @Lauren_Scheller uses temperature checks, where students describe their understanding in terms of temperature, from cold (don’t get it) to hot (no problem!).
  • @cadamsf1 uses mini whiteboards to assess students’ understanding by asking quick questions. Students hold up their whiteboards with names, and she can usually tell how much the class is following by the speed of responses. A cheap alternative to whiteboards: white plastic Dixie plates, plastic binder covers, splash boards from a home-improvement store or white paper between sheet protectors.

Some checks are a bit more detailed. Above, we focused on quickly checking comprehension. The below ideas can be used to assess what students need more of or are excelling at.

  • Try quick Google Voice calls recorded by students. Send a short text to the student afterward for feedback (@Lauren_Scheller). If students make the call during class, it’s often less prepared and more authentic (@NinaTanti1). You can still text feedback at home.
  • Try exit checks at the end of class: a small, written student assessment or question on the topic. It can be as simple as a short self-assessment checklist (@suarez712002).
  • Digital exit checks are great, too. Try Poll Everywhere, Socrative or Google Forms to get and discuss student responses quickly (@nnaditz). Wallwisher is another good medium for students to post notes, questions or portfolio comments (@cadamsf1).
  • @nnaditz likes to take exit checks further by collecting student responses and creating an activity modeling good responses, followed by responses that need some correction — mostly for common errors. Or pick a few and give to small groups at the beginning of next class to check (@Lauren_Scheller).
    • Quick tip: When collecting exit tickets, try checking them after class. Otherwise class can get bogged down. Also, skim through and look for understanding or common errors. You’re not grading these, and they’re meant to be a quick check (@placido).
  • @senorjordan has students write quizzes for him to take at the end of class. This helps him to see what he really drove home to the students during class.

For some suggestions of quick topics that work for the above-mentioned exit checks or fast Google Voice calls, try some of these:

  • Describe the purpose of (holiday) using seven of these ten words (@Lauren_Scheller).
  • Here’s a comic/image/video, call Google Voice and describe it in less than one minute (@placido).
  • My screen went black (or other simple scenario), what do I do? (@Lauren_Scheller).
  • Call Google Voice and describe two things that X character did in the story this week (@placido).

Formative assessment doesn’t have to be a specific activity or tool. Many participants prefer to assess their students while doing ordinary class activities, or to design activities that quickly assess student comprehension.

  • @Lauren_Scheller uses speed-dating activities and assesses students while they communicate interpersonally. She also uses quick Q and As and “whip arounds,” where students share and develop comments on a subject rapidly through the classroom.
  • When playing language games, @jas347 has each student’s opponent be the “miniprofesseur” who decides if the person is correct. This helps students to evaluate and teach each other.

Another effective formative assessment is to review past work to go over common mistakes. This is best when students can be guided to identify and correct the mistakes themselves.

  • @placido suggests taking examples of past student work (from a different class or year is best) and talking about it as a class.
  • Several participants like to take incorrect examples from students’ recent homework or quizzes and discuss and edit them as a class. When doing so, try telling students how many are wrong, but not which are wrong (@placido).
  • When testing students through summative assessment, @placido might encourage students to try the test again. This turns the summative assessment into a formative one. @nnaditz allows the same, after a tutoring session or otherwise demonstrating that they understand.

For online teachers or teachers using online resources, try some of these ideas:

  • @docseiler says that ongoing dialogue is very important when face-to-fact time is limited. Use Twitter, Skype, texts or email so students are comfortable enough to write or speak the language.
  • If teaching 1:1, try letting the student screenshare with you and explain what they are doing (@SrtaLisa). You can see and hear misconceptions and reteach the problem areas.

The above are great suggestions for formative assessments and quick comprehension checks, but keep in mind that any activity can shift to a formative assessment. Formative assessment is about the intent, not the activity (@placido). Try circling the room during any activity and listening for common mistakes. After the activity, feedback with the whole class (@Traciepod).

  • Take notes while circling; students will think you’re grading (@placido).
  • @Lauren_Scheller uses a seating chart with dry-erase names, and she tries to spend time assessing every student at least once a week.

If you’re interested in additional assessment ideas, check out this past #langchat summary on assessing individual students in class.

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Formative Assessment Tips

When implementing formative assessment in class, always remember that it’s about the students first (@tmsaue1). No matter the medium, the intent is to understand what students need so you can best adapt instruction to their requirements. You’re also aiming to get students to understand themselves what they need — i.e., what they know and don’t know (@NinaTanti1).

  • “I can” statements work wonderfully here.

Some students might not grasp the value of practice without points, which formative assessment is focused on. For such students, try giving them other tokens of achievement, such as Edmodo badges.

When assessing students, random selection is critical. Avoid volunteers as you’ll often get the same students. For some picking tips, try popsicle sticks with students’ names (@placido), index cards or ClassCards (for iPad), or the fruit machine random name picker from

Further Reading

@placido presented on formative assessments at the Michigan World Language Association last fall, and she shared this link for her handouts.

@placido recommends “A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades” if you’re interested in learning more about formative assessment.

@CalicoTeach recommends ACTFL’s new book, “Keys to Assessing Language Performance” by Paul Sandrock. There are many sample rubrics and tasks included.

Check out this page recommended by @placido on some activities to use to assess students formatively in the classroom.


Thanks again to everyone who participated this past Thursday! We had an insightful #langchat that was full of both great discussion and plenty of actionable ideas. If you missed the chat and want to read the full archive, check out our Google Doc.

As always, the discussion isn’t over. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter through the #langchat hashtag. If you have a suggestion for a future topic, please visit our wiki or use this form.

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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