In my 21 years in the classroom, I’ve had experience with policies around allowing test retakes, dropping late work penalties, and prohibiting zeros. Education reformers have recently gained traction in promoting these policies, and here at Edutopia David Cutler recently wrote an article entitled “Tips for Allowing Test Retakes.”
In my experience, however, the more lenient we are in these matters, the less students learn. The traditional policies—giving each assessment only once, penalizing late work, and giving zeros in some situations—help most students maximize their learning and improve their time management skills, preparing them for success in college and career.
3 Reasons Traditional Policies Remain Effective
1. Student motivation: Proponents of the new policies are well intentioned, but these policies are designed for intrinsically motivated students. The truth is that no one—students, teachers, parents—is entirely intrinsically motivated. These current reforms seem to overlook that. Many of my students have candidly admitted that flexible due dates and retake opportunities leave them unmotivated, and therefore they learn less than they could.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist who wrote a book on human decision-making called Predictably Irrational, has studied the power of deadlines. One of his research studies showed that college students who were held to firm deadlines performed better, in general, than students who chose their own deadlines or turned in all work at the end of the semester. In a TED talk about self-control, Ariely explains that most people prioritize immediate desires over long-term goals. Just as adults are always starting their diet “tomorrow,” students will begin writing their essay or studying for their big test “tomorrow”—both students and adults procrastinate.
Deadlines and consequences for late work provide scaffolding for students to learn self-control. These policies provide the extrinsic motivation students need to build study habits and time management skills. In my experience, reform policies rely too heavily on students already having strong self-control and intrinsic motivation. In math classes, where concepts constantly build on one another, traditional policies hold students to schedules that keep them learning with the class. This makes kids practice and check their practice on a timeline determined by the teacher that will have them ready to test before the test. Deadlines build students’ ability to self-assess and then self-advocate to get the help they need.
2. Mental health: When deadlines are flexible and retakes are available, many students spend their time with their entertaining devices at the detriment of keeping up with their schoolwork. They spend hours a day on video games and social media. Record numbers of students today are reporting feelings of depression, which some researchers link to the increase in student screen time.
Retakes and soft deadlines allow students to procrastinate: Why do school work that can be completed later when they can Snapchat now? Deadlines and one-time testing, on the other hand, provide extrinsic motivation to keep students on task on a regular basis.
Retake policies also allow students to dig themselves into “late holes” that cause preventable stress and anxiety. My math class builds sequentially: Mastery in early units helps students be successful in the following units. In my experience, traditional policies motivate students to maximize their learning in the first unit, which helps them on every later unit.
Under retake policies, parents at my school have expressed concerns about how overwhelmed their children become due to being caught in a vicious cycle of retakes. Traditional policies send the message to students and parents that it’s important to work hard consistently throughout the course, and teachers can provide extra support to keep struggling students from feeling overwhelmed.
3. Teacher effectiveness: Reform policies can be effective if the teacher has time to implement them well. However, every minute writing and grading retakes or grading long-overdue work is a minute that I’m not planning effective and creative instruction, grading current work so students receive timely feedback, or communicating with parents.
In special circumstances, such as an illness or death in the family, it’s reasonable to give students second chances and to extend deadlines. Doing this too often, however, steals valuable time away from the teacher that may reduce the quality of instruction for all the other students.
A key flaw in the reform policies is the assumption about motivation. Many students—not all, but many—require extrinsic motivation. Due dates, one-time assessments, and late penalties provide motivation for the majority of our students.
There is no one way to teach, and any system will inevitably better fit some students than others. But in my experience, reform policies benefit a small portion of the student body, whereas traditional policies better serve a majority of students.
I hope that the dialogue around these policies starts shifting back in favor of traditional methods because they work for the majority of students and give teachers more time for effective planning and assessing, which all teachers agree are vital for a successful classroom.