As a young teacher, I would tell my students that hard work doesn’t always equate with success. Instead, I encouraged them to work smarter, not necessarily harder, for the next big test or writing assignment. I urged them to avoid cramming and instead to plan ahead, visit a writing tutor, or find time to chat with me about potential difficulties.
For the most part, this advice remains solid—but if I could go back in time, I would tell myself to do more to forestall student disappointment over grades, which often fuels a feeling of futility, as students see little point in ever trying to succeed in a subject.
To prevent this, I now allow retakes on most assessments. For similar reasons, I also allow some leeway for students who fail to meet deadlines. After all, the goal in any discipline is mastery, and I’m not as concerned as I used to be about when an individual masters a concept—just that it is in fact mastered.
Making the Retest Policy Clear
During the first week of school, I spell out my retake policy to my high school history and government students:
- Aim to perform well the first time around on all assignments and assessments. Otherwise, you create more work and stress for yourself by having to keep up with new work in this and other courses while you prepare for the retake.
- A retake must be completed within one week of my returning the original; schedule it with me during a shared free period, or come in before or after school. You may also ask a proctor who is willing to sit with you, as long as you inform me in advance. I will check in with that adult.
- Keep in mind that while the retake will cover the same content, I may ask you to respond to different questions.
- I will record the higher of the two scores in the online gradebook.
- No matter what grade you initially earned on an assignment or assessment, if you did not perform to the best of your ability, I encourage you to take advantage of a retake.
- Retake policies are not applicable for small quizzes or midterm and final exams.
Why I Offer Retakes
Retakes let students know that I acknowledge their humanity, that we all have bad days. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve come to school with a headache or a personal matter that impacted the quality of my instruction. In each instance, my students forgave my oversights, and I feel it’s only fair that I return the favor. This certainly involves more work on my end, but it’s worth it given how often students achieve more success on retakes.
Recently, my history students wrote about a slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, exploring whether empathy helps or hinders a more complete understanding of the antebellum South. A handful of students performed exceedingly well, but many others struggled to craft an analytical approach. After anonymously sharing in class common missteps and how to avoid them, along with several exemplary papers, I encouraged those who didn’t find similar success to return to the drawing board. The vast majority of the revisions blew me away, with students taking to heart my comments to compose more scholarly work.
“Mr. Cutler, your retake policy lets us know that you want us to improve, and you give us the opportunity to do so, which is greatly appreciated,” one student told me, after submitting a phenomenal revision. “Your retake policy pushes me and others to take a closer look at your comments and suggestions.”
Why I Don’t Fail Late Work
My thinking on late work was profoundly shaped by a conversation I had with Rick Wormeli, a National Board–certified teacher and author of one of my favorite education books, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.
He told me something I’ve never forgotten: “A kid doesn’t do an assignment, no matter how large, and I just give him a zero? He doesn’t get competent. He remains incompetent. Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward? Incompetence, but be able to tell all my colleagues in the larger society, ‘Oh, I caught him. He couldn’t get past me with missing a deadline, let me tell you.’ Or is it, ‘Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and the wisdom that come from doing something a second and third time around, where you’ll get your act together.’ Both of those are greater gifts in the long run than simply labeling a child for a failed deadline.”
I couldn’t agree more, even though I still sometimes struggle with whether to dock students points for late submissions. I want students, especially upperclassmen, to be responsible learners. At the same time, I don’t want to let their occasional irresponsibility get in the way of their learning.
The key, I think, is treating each situation as unique. When it comes to being fair, one size does not fit all.