Using formative assessment to activate Chinese ‘quiet students’ in English learning

Zhuo Li

What is the idea?

Attracted by the global marketplace, universities in western countries have been recruiting international students at an unprecedented speed, and Chinese students have made up the largest percentage compared to students of other nationalities. Many Chinese students are quiet and reserved in academic discussion, which can be a challenge for those teachers who are familiar with using participative teaching methods. This short chapter explores the use of formative assessments within a Chinese university context to activate quiet students.

Why this idea?

Before exploring effective ways to activate quiet students, it is necessary to know the factors that cause Chinese students’ reservations to participate in class.

Students’ willingness to communicate is closely affected by their country’s culture.

To many Chinese, the concept that “quiet is golden” serves as armour to protect them from troubles. Furthermore, because of the Confucian teaching tradition, many Chinese students are afraid to ask teachers questions because it is perceived as a challenge to the teachers’ authority. They believe that remaining silent and occupied with taking notes in class is the best approach to being a good student.


Language proficiency also hinders Chinese students’ willingness to communicate.

The second reason that Chinese students remain quiet in class is a lack of language proficiency.

Because they are scared to make mistakes, most Chinese students with inferior proficiency avoid losing face by staying mute. This is considerably worse in Western colleges where Chinese students are surrounded by fluent English speakers. They undergo both culture shock and teaching-culture shock, which further disincentives them from contributing.

Many shy students are still motivated

Apart from the two previously mentioned qualities, the third group of silent students are introverted. They keep quiet merely because they are too shy to participate. When this group of students’ instrumental motivation is triggered, they can modify themselves actively in learning. They will, for example, open their mouths and raise their hands if they believe they would benefit from, say, a high grade for their active performances. As a result, a clear assessment checklist requiring class involvement and interaction may assist in driving individuals to participate in classroom learning.

Formative evaluation can bring numerous benefits for breaking the quiet class phenomena.

Meidasari (2015) states that the main reason for assessment is to “inform teaching and to promote and encourage learning—to promote optimal individual growth” (p. 228). With carefully considered assessment objectives, students have a clearer idea of what they are required to learn and what they need to improve. In turn, in-class assessments allow teachers to get data about the students’ performance so that they can adapt their teaching to meet their students’ needs. Topping (2009) gives a more specific perspective that peer assessment can improve students’ writing, and group work and can save teachers’ time. Sejdiu (2014) also demonstrated that “peer assessment is important in settings where there are many students to a single tutor” (p. 71).

In this chapter, I will use my English teaching in mainland China as a case.

How could others implement this idea?

This practice was carried out in the module  College English, which aims at improving university students’ English proficiency. Forms of formative assessments I employ are peer assessment (included 25% assessments from peer group assessors and 20% from inner group members), web-aided assessment (25%) and teacher assessment (emphasise in feedback, 30%).

Peer assessment

Students are divided into groups. Putting them into friendship groups can encourage shy students to communicate.

Assignment tasks are delivered before class to guarantee students are well prepared. This step can release their anxiety and make sure they can understand what group members are talking about and allow them to respond quickly and properly.

Assignments are varied and might include article analysis, background information discussion, debate, interview, role-play, and so on.

Peer assessment is introduced and its importance is explained to students before class.

Though it has many gains, students (peer assessors) should be trained before giving an assessment. Topping (2009). provides some methods to this training. For example, “show them how to do’, “provide training, examples, and practice”, “and specify activities and timescale” (pp. 25-26). Practically, it takes around 15 minutes to train students. During the process of peer assessment, teachers act as an organiser to steer it in the right direction.

Peer assessment should cover speaking and writing. Usually, I will invite one student (randomly) to report their group’s assessment. The other group members need to hand in their own paper assessment individually.

Content, creativity and cooperation should take priority over pronunciation. Though students have the same academic background, their English proficiency is varied. The students who come from Chinese urban cities are better than those that come from rural areas. Some students have prepared very well before class, but fail to get a high score from peer assessment due to their strong accent which makes them hard to understand. This factor is the biggest reason to prevent students’ participation. For this reason, details in the checklist of peer assessment must emphasise content, creativity, and cooperation.


Peer assessment checklist

Peer group (25%)

Student A :
Assessor 1 :  (in order to make the assessment reliable, only teacher can see assessor’s name)
Information points(40%)
Quick comment
Total score
Table 1

Inner group (20%)

Student A:
Assessor 1 :  (in order to make the assessment reliable, only  the teacher can see  the assessor‘s name)


Contribution (50%)
Cooperation (50%)
Quick comment
Total score
Table 2

Web-aided assessment

Peer assessment aroused students’ willingness to communicate, but it is time-consuming and subjective. There are many MOOC websites and apps that can complement and fulfil an overall and objective assessment. For examples WeLearn, Unipus, wechat group, Rainclassroom, and on. These websites and apps record students’ performance in e-learning and communication, score on many specific items individually, give personal feedback and provide reliable data to teachers for follow-up instruction. It’s extremely necessary for teachers to remind students that all performances are recorded by showing statistics in web-aid assessment, which can further increase students’ involvement in active learning.

Teachers’ assessment

Teachers’ authority in my practice has decreased in comparison to traditional exam-based summative assessment. However, teachers’ assessments continue to have the highest ratio among the three types of formative assessment, which can reassure students that they are active learning under strict supervision rather than solely self-study. Teachers should provide specific and supportive feedback regardless of the assessment. It can be a summary of the student’s performance, a guide to the next chapter of the student’s study, or simply a correction to the student’s understanding. With the changes mentioned above, formative assessment has proven to be beneficial to both my teaching and the students’ active learning.

Transferability to different contexts

Although this practice is commonly used in Chinese English-learning classrooms, it can be applied in almost any context with Chinese or introverted students. I would recommend teachers in stages:

Peer assessment

Invite different students to represent their groups in the final assessment so that those with higher language proficiency do not dominate the speaking activity.

When students disagree, teachers can step in. Teachers can also intervene when students speak Chinese in class rather than English.
Leaders of groups are crucial. They should be well-organised, friendly, helpful, and skilled at steering the conversation.
Rubrics for assessments should prioritise content over pronunciation or intonation.


Language assistance should be provided by teachers. Teachers should speak standard English at a slow pace and correct students’ sentence structure errors.

Teachers should offer emotional support to their students. Using words such as “wonderful, creative thinking, perfect” can boost students’ confidence and encourage them to communicate.

Links to tools and resources


Meidasari, V. E. (2015). The assessment and evaluation in teaching English as a foreign language. Indonesian EFL. Journal, 1(2), 224-231.

Sejdiu, S. (2014). English language teaching and assessment in blended learning. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 3(2), 67-82.

Topping, K. J. (2009). Peer assessment. Theory into Practice, 48(1), 20-27.

About the author

Zhuo Li  is a lecturer at the Guangdong University of Technology, with a background in TESOL. She has translated several books and published articles about motivating Chinese students to communicate in English learning. She has delivered English courses for Chinese postgraduate students, as well as undergraduates, who major in Technology. Her research interests focus on peer assessment and students’ willingness to communicate.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Zhuo Li is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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