Retakes: A Good Idea

by Mike Melie

“I don’t offer retests. There is no such thing as a retest. Tests cease to be tests if students can just do them over again.” When I first read this quote from Myron Dueck’s book Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn, I was thrown off. I immediately thought that Dueck was throwing the idea of assessment retakes out the window, and then I realized that there was an important distinction being made between two simple words: retest and retake. The difference between these terms is important to consider when thinking about incorporating retakes into classroom practice; a retest is simply giving the same assessment over again, while a retake asks students to demonstrate mastery of essential learning goals.

Why Give Retakes?

According to Rick Wormeli in his online video, “Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom”, the first and most important factor in offering retakes is the idea of hope. He uses the metaphor of being a teacher who sees a student at the bottom of a deep “hole” consisting of their poor grade. The teacher has the choice of either shouting accusatory remarks such as, “Hey! What are you doing?!? Get out of there!” or using a retake as a “lifeline” to help the student out and into the light. A retake can therefore be seen as a way to motivate students to try again and to demonstrate their mastery of skills after a period of reflection.

Also, as Wormeli states, the “real world” is not a place of constant one-shot, high-stakes moments. In fact, most people need to practice for a long time before entering into those stressful types of situations. Retakes help students to get ready for the “real world” outside of school by allowing them to practice, perhaps fail, and then try again, much in the same way that most training takes place. Carol Dweck labels this idea of turning failure into a positive opportunity the defining characteristic of a growth mindset: “A ‘growth mindset’… thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”  This concept stands in contrast to the fixed mindset, in which a person believes that intelligence and ability are set in stone and cannot be changed; a fixed mindset can lead to feelings of hopelessness, defensiveness, and defeat. Obviously our work as educators is to support students in their shift to a growth mindset so that they can overcome difficulties in a positive way. They can then view failures as stepping stones rather than roadblocks.

The Student-Teacher Partnership

Retakes offer students a chance to deepen their mastery of core learning targets. And in the process of moving towards positive achievement, students take ownership of their learning and work more closely with their teacher in a partnership. This sense of increased responsibility together with the “teacher-as-coach” model can help students to feel in charge. This sense of control, the “I can do it!” mentality, is often a crucial step in disposition for a student, when the spark of intrinsic motivation flashes to life. A student’s behavior can potentially turn around at this point when he or she realizes that this first instance of success can lead to even more success. Students can then move ahead to the next unit of study with a more positive disposition – a growth mindset that they can and will reach their goals.

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