Assessment is an important component of language training and helps trainers to evaluate the progress of their learners and understand what they need to improve upon. It is possible to categorize assessment into two basic types:

  • formative assessment
  • summative assessment

In article, I’ll explore the difference between formative and summative assessment in the context of digital, self-paced language learning.

Formative assessments are informal evaluations that take place throughout the learning process to give learners an idea of their progress. It is an ongoing process used to elicit evidence of language learning and provide learners with a clear understanding of what learning gaps they need to fill. Formative assessments are not designed to be graded or used as final evaluation tools, but rather to provide continuous feedback to inform further learning. Formative assessments take place in real-time, during lessons, as you learn, and are designed to be quick and simple. They are generally less structured than summative assessments and can take many different forms, including class discussions, presentations, peer-reviews, role-plays, quizzes, and games. They are often student-centered, self-directed and encourage learners to develop self-efficacy.

How does formative assessment work in digital self-paced language learning?

Formative assessments are a vital part of online language learning, especially for self-paced learners using a digital platform. These assessments provide continuous feedback on the learner’s progress and help them track their progress as they work through the course. Here are some examples of formative assessments for self-paced language learners:

(1) Progress tracking

A self-paced, digital learning platform should include progress tracking features that allow learners to see how far they have progressed in the course and what areas they need to work on. This provides feedback on their performance, allowing them to see what areas they need to focus on.

(2) Practice exercises

Practice exercises are the main form of formative assessment for language learners. These exercises can be in the form of multiple-choice questions, gap-fill exercises, matching exercises, etc. The platform provides immediate feedback to the learner, allowing them to see what was correct and what was not. It is possible to provide tips for incorrect answers, so that a learner can repeat a step and gain a better result on the second attempt. This creates a sort of hidden teacher who intervenes when students make mistakes.

(3) Review tests and quizzes

These regular knowledge checks should be integrated into many different steps of a digital assignment, rather than one long test at the end of a module, which would be more like summative assessment. They should be designed to evaluate the learners’ understanding of language structures and target language already learned and provide feedback on performance.

(4) Voice recognition

Some language learning platforms include voice recognition technology which allows learners to practice their speaking skills and the language they are learning. The platform provides immediate feedback on pronunciation, tone, and other elements of speech, allowing learners to see what areas they need to work on.

(5) Interactive activities

These gamification elements include could include, stories, conversation simulations in addition to games. The activities are designed to offer users direct feedback on how they have learned. With the advent of tools like Chat GPT, activities like conversation simulations are likely to be revolutionised by chatbots in the coming years. In the future, AI is likely to take on the role of the trainer in online interactions between a digital platform and learners.

Summative assessments, on the other hand, are much more formal evaluations that take place at the end of a learning program. Summative assessments are often used at the end of a level, or block of assignments, to evaluate the learner’s knowledge and skills, and generate data. They can provide concrete evidence to show whether or not the learner has met the defined learning objectives. Summative assessments are often used in formal education to determine grades and can also take the form of exams, essays, or written assignments.

How does summative assessment work in digital self-paced language learning?

Summative assessments are used to prove that language learning goals are being met, and  they help create the learning statistics which show how successful a learning program is. They are essential in the creation of learner data, and showing learners how they are progressing through a learning program. Here are some examples of summative assessments in self-paced language learning.

(1) Progress test

These interim tests are a wide range of activity types, such as multiple-choice quizzes, gap-fill questions, reordering or matching activities. Progress tests often take place after a block of assignments and have a dual function. They provide information to the learner about what they can do well, but through repetition, they also help the learner consolidate information. In this way, learning and testing is combined.

(2) Exam

Many language learning platforms include a final exam that assesses the learner’s overall understanding of the language they have learned during one program or level. These exams can be in the form of multiple-choice questions, gap-fill questions, or writing exercises. They often lead to certification in the form a of a written certificate, showing documented evidence of the learner’s proficiency in the target language.

(3) Level test: Some language learning platforms start with a test that shows the learner’s overall skill level. These tests are designed to evaluate the learner’s understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and fluency. They are normally used in the needs analysis phase to place a learner at the correct level for future study.

(4) Speaking assessment

Some platforms evaluate the learner’s ability to speak the language they have learned. This assessment may include a conversation simulation or a voice recognition tool that evaluates the learner’s pronunciation, tone, and other elements of speech. This can also be used as an add on to a level test, or as part of an end of course progress test.

What are the pros and cons of each approach?

One of the key advantages of formative assessments is that they provide regular feedback to the learner. This feedback can be used to adjust their learning strategies, address weaknesses, and reinforce their strengths. The frequent feedback also provides motivation for learners, as they can see the progress they are making and receive recognition for their efforts. Additionally, formative assessments provide an opportunity for the trainer to identify any areas of confusion or misunderstanding and adjust their teaching approach accordingly. A disadvantage is that formative assessments can be less reliable than summative assessments, as they are not designed to be graded or used as final evaluation tools. It should also be noted that, in a online self-paced course, it is much harder to achieve the social aspects of formative learning like collaboration, asking and answering questions, and adaptation of the curriculum to suit learners. These aspects are easier to achieve in the classroom, as trainers are able to respond immediately to formative assessments and make the challenge level higher or lower for students as appropriate. However, this aspect is likely to be revolutionised by AI in the coming years.

Summative assessments, on the other hand, provide a comprehensive evaluation of the learner’s mastery of the material. They provide a clear picture of the learner’s strengths and weaknesses, which can be used to inform future learning and development. Summative assessments are also useful for demonstrating the effectiveness of the learning program and for measuring the progress of the learners over time. In addition, they provide valuable evidence to stakeholders that learning outcomes have been reached. This learner data becomes an important element of reporting, and the development of long-term client relationships.  

Summative assessments also have some drawbacks, particularly in the context of adult learners in business English training. For example, summative assessments can be stressful for learners, especially if they are unfamiliar with the testing format, and have been out of education for a long time. Adult learners may not perform well under pressure, so the results might not always reflect the learner’s understanding of the material. It is also more interesting to monitor the learners’ ability to apply material in real-world scenarios that are more related to their business context. It is often much more interesting for students to receive formative assessment after they have complete one or more stages in a case study, as this focuses on the functional and practical skills associated with real-life language use. In contrast, a summative exam is a very abstract and artificial representation of these skills.

Despite these disadvantages, both formative and summative assessments play an important role in language training. In order to leverage assessments, it is important to use a combination of both formative and summative assessments in the learning process. By providing regular feedback, tracking progress, and generating accurate learner data, we can ensure that the learners are on track to meet their learning objectives and improve their language skills.

Image by WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay


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