To Retake Or Not To Retake–That Is the Question

News Flash! Students don’t always give every assignment or test their best effort. So, as a teacher, what do you do when students fail a test or other important assignment? Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of my colleagues (all of whom are terrific teachers) have surprisingly different, even conflicting, philosophies on makeup work.

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One of my teacher friends recently asked me, if I allow my students to make up tests easily, what lesson am I teaching my them? Good question! It’s all-too-tempting, especially for teachers like me (a confessed Bleeding-Heart), to allow unlimited makeup opportunities.

But we all know what happens when we allow too many unlimited retake opportunities. Who wants to be the teacher who has a crowd of students spilling into the hallway after school on the last day of the semester, because the students were allowed to make up every assignment all the way to the bitter end? (Yeah, I admit that was me, once upon a time.)

On the other hand, no teacher wants to be the tightwad who never offers makeup work. If you can tell a student two months into the semester that s/he has absolutely no chance of passing the course, then we have a problem. A big problem. And I’m not just talking about the student’s problem of signing up for summer school. I’m talking about your problem: this now-unmotivated student, who might become bored and seek attention, will continue to show up–every single day–for the rest of the semester. Can you really call yourself an effective teacher if you never give your students second chances?

I don’t think our focus has been quite right. Maybe we’ve been too worried about having one, perfect makeup policy for all students. Why? We should aim to teach our students that learning is important enough to keep trying. This may look different in different types of classrooms, depending on the age and achievement level of your students. If you have a room full of advanced students, then by all means make them work hard, because they care about their grades and will search for every angle they can get.

But when you have a lot of the at-risk students I affectionately call my “Sweathogs,” second chances should come with the territory. If you offer makeup tests, consider using some of these strategies to help make the work meaningful.

  • Remediate: Consider creating a remedial assignment that students must complete prior to taking a makeup test. Think short, fill-in-the-blank questions that cover the most important concepts on the test. This can be a very useful assignment for the students, especially if they have to re-process the concepts in a new way (possibly by reading a short article or analyzing something visual like a picture, chart, or graph). You might want to encourage students to use their notes or textbooks to find the answers to the questions. Some teachers also set a minimum delay period (say, a week) before a makeup test may be taken.
  • Show Me The Notes: Students often fail a test because they weren’t paying attention in class. If this is the case, why not use this opportunity to reinforce your expectations about taking notes? If students are expected to take notes during lectures and class discussions, you could require them to show you their notes prior to taking a makeup test. If students don’t have any notes to show you, then you can require them to recopy from another student or (if you have one) a master set.
  • Timing Is Everything: Many teachers use office hours either at lunch or after school for makeups. If you keep regular office hours, consider scheduling your makeup tests at another time or in another room. It can be awkward explaining the Pythagorean Theorem to one student, while another student 5 feet away is taking a makeup test on the same Pythagorean Theorem.
    However, if your students are like mine, they won’t all flock to spend their spare time in your classroom. Consider carving out some time within the class day for makeup tests. You can even schedule a “Makeup Day” with an entire hour dedicated to nothing but remediation assignments and makeup tests. If you have students who have already passed all of their tests, you can give them a self-directed enrichment assignment during the same time.
  • To Penalize or Not To Penalize, That Is the Question: Because many of my students are at-risk, I usually make all of my makeup tests worth full credit. I make my students work to earn their makeup opportunities, so I don’t mind giving them a little incentive. But you might want to consider taking a point penalty for makeup tests. Half credit, 75% maximum, and one-letter-grade limits are all options. Remember, you’re the teacher. If students don’t like your makeup policies, you could always gently remind them that you’re not required by law to give them a makeup in the first place!
  • Have another strategy or thought to share? Feel free to add a comment below.

Bottom line: The right grading policy, and the right way to implement it, should be responsive to the needs of the students in your classroom. Collaborating with colleagues definitely helps–maybe the teacher next door, or down the hall, or across town has ideas and experiences that will help you make a better policy. If you have one or more partners who teach a similar class or grade level, why not split up the work and share the same makeup assignments, remedial reviews, and office hour time?