Why a Retake doesn’t enhance learning.

Recently, a post on a listserv I am part of was discussing retakes at the secondary level and how different schools have structured them. The thread was well responded to and well thought out. We had responses from giving them in every case no questions asked to not ever allowing a retake. Some schools require certain things before a retake can begin, others allow a certain maximum number of retakes in a semester.

Throughout the thread, I read, but didn’t respond. I wanted to know if my thoughts about retakes were unique, or being rather reflective, on the right track. In my experience, retakes have been frustrating to say the least. The culture of the my school has changed so drastically since the advent of the retake, it puts in question the core concept of should retakes happen. It has been pointed out to me that I never statistically determined that the retake is the cause of the cultural issues. Nope, I haven’t. Personally, I don’t feel I need to. When student’s respond on the first assessment of the year that they “just want to look at it and take the retake tomorrow,” I don’t need a statistical analysis to determine there is a cultural issue and retakes, at minimum have something to do with it.

My beliefs about retakes are simple. Not only should they happen but they are an essential component of education.  My guess is you may be a little surprised at that statement.

Retakes and RTI need to go hand in hand.  If a student is retaking an exam, the question really needs to be why, not what percentage it should take in the grade.  We should also be asking questions such as:  What did the student do to not earn a passing grade?  Do they have prior gaps preventing them from learning?  Do they have poor work habits?  Is our test based on work habits or learning?  How can we design their day to best help enable them to succeed?  Could the issue be a home issue and this is a one time instance?   Or, is there a different underlying issue?
I feel it is too easy to pull the student responsibility card and much harder to look at it from an individual student perspective.  It is important to remember that these are kids we are working with even though in most cases we want them to act as adults.  This doesn’t mean there are no consequences from poor choices.  On the contrary, it means the complete opposite.  If a student legitimately didn’t do anything prior to the exam the true reaction should be they don’t take the original assessment.  Wouldn’t this be more effective than allowing the student to fail initially.  The retake needs to be used as a teaching tool, not a gift.  Retakes don’t lead to learning.  If a retake needs to happen what is the reason.  That is where the learning occurs.  Should they happen, yes…after we have figured out what the root cause of the lack of learning is.  Otherwise we are just perpetuating a viscous circle.
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One Comment;

  1. Rich Lund said:

    At first, I have been against the idea of retakes, but I recognize, that was my own personal opinion, and I should reserve judgement on this until I’ve read the ideas of others. I’ve read several articles about what the benefit of retakes are, and over and over again, I have yet to find any article providing me with *strong* rationale for the retake.

    Many articles describe how we should not expect students to always succeed the first time. Sure that’s true…but the test ISN’T the first time. If you’re teaching things correctly, and the student is doing what’s expected, they should have seen the material 1) when they read through the book, 2) when it was covered in class, 3) on the homework they were assigned after it was taught, 4) the next day when you show some of the answers to the homework, 5) during class review, and 6) during their own independent review of the material. It is NOT the first time they’ve seen it. If they have correctly prepared themselves, it should be about the 7th time they’ve seen the material. If it were true that the test was the 1st time, and a retake is a 2nd time seeing the material, I’d be on board with the idea. But it’s not. If the teacher and the student are doing what they should be, the test is around the 7th time that they’ve been exposed to the idea, and an 8th time with a retake is illogical.

    Another category of the arguments for retakes revolves around the idea that students learn at different rates and that a retake gives those who maybe didn’t learn the material by the time of the test a chance to show their learning later on the retake. That’s totally true, it does! But…we already have something in our system for that. It’s called the EXAM. We have Exams already in place in our system to do just that, and give students a second chance to demonstrate their learning of the material. So why re-invent the testing situation to fulfill a need that has already been fulfilled? Because it’s NOT about students succeeding in their learning. People want retakes because they want more students to pass (not necessarily learn). The more I read about it, the more people who are pro-retakes are concerned with students passing, and not so much students learning. Strong evidence of this might be that when people have ventured this argument of giving students a “second chance to show their learning”, I have brought up the existence of the Exam. It is usually met with the advocate stating that the Exam doesn’t influence the grade enough. When I state that I can always make the Exam worth more than 20%, they back away like vampires to garlic, stating that this would cause too much importance on one test.

    Want a dead giveaway that it’s about “passing” and has nothing to do with “learning”? Offer unlimited retakes…but don’t offer any change in the grade because of them. You’ll quickly see nobody jumping in line to take the retake, even though it would help them on the Exam if they prepare a second time for the retake and try those problems again. They won’t line up for this opportunity because there is no IMMEDIATE grade reward for doing it. THAT, I think, is the most telling point of this all.

    What about Universities? Do they offer retakes? The majority do not. Do you get retakes a the job interview? (“Hey, sir, I’m not feeling it today…can I come back tomorrow and do this interview again from scratch?”) The overwhelming majority of high states cost/benefit situations we experience in life do NOT have do-overs, and if they do, they usually come with a price tag or some other negative consequence. If we are charged with preparing the youth for this, we must teach them to prepare for important events. I’ve TRIED retakes before, and the culture that ends up happening (and students admit this to me without a problem) is that they will often “wing it” the first time and just “see how it goes” and if it isn’t as good as they’d like it to be without much effort put in, THEN they’ll try to prepare for the retake. Is that truly what we want to teach our students as an option towards success?

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