Redos & Retakes Done Right

By Rick Wormeli, Educational Leadership, November 2011

 Second chances promote more learning—and prepare students for adult life.

Jarrel plagiarized one paragraph in his health class essay…. Carla came to after-school review sessions…but only scored a D on her English exam. Marco was distracted by other things when he did his history homework….

All three students would like to redo their assignment or assessment properly, [for] full credit….

Many teachers reason that they are building moral fiber and preparing students for the working world by denying them the opportunity to redo assignments and assessments—or if they do allow retakes, by giving only partial credit…even when students have demonstrated full mastery of the content. These are the same teachers who set a deadline for submitting work and then give students who do not meet the deadline a zero, thinking that the devastating score will teach them responsibility.

In reality, these practices have the opposite effect: They hinder student achievement and maturation. As hope wanes, resentment builds….

One Speed for All?

The goal is that all students learn the content, not just the ones who can learn on the uniform time line. Curriculum goals don’t require that every individual achieve the same level of proficiency on the same day, only that every student achieves the goal. Appointing next Friday as the official test date is an arbitrary decision made for clerical convenience….

Although we can’t do it 100% of the time, allowing students to redo both assignments and assessments for particularly important standards and outcomes most of the time is highly effective. This approach reflects what we know about successful learning….

Practice, Practice, Practice

Consider the Olympic runner poised to begin the race for the gold medal in the final heat. The pistol goes off, and the runners [dash] across the finish line within seconds of one another. Our runner comes in fourth, however, so there’s no medal for him.

Does he get a “do-over” of that race? No—and that’s proper at this level of competition. Remember, he’s not in the learning-to-run stage of development; he’s in the proficient-runner stage.

How did our runner become so competent [that he reached the] Olympics? He ran…hundreds of times prior to today’s race. And each time he ran, his time was not an aggregated compilation of all his bad times woven together with his more successful times. Can you imagine telling a runner that his earlier 68.74 seconds from two years ago would be averaged with his new and improved 51.03 seconds?…

We carry forward concepts and skills we encounter repeatedly, and we get better at retrieving them the more we experience them. Why, then, would we impose…a policy that prohibits such an effective practice?… We write a lot of essays in order to become proficient in essay writing…. We get better at playing the guitar by playing the guitar a lot, not by playing it for a week and putting it aside.

It’s only sensible, then, to expect different things of students during the learning process than we expect of them when it’s time to demonstrate final proficiency…. Applying expectations for a high level of competency to students who are in the process of coming to know content is counterproductive, even harmful….

Preparing Students for the Adult World

The teacher who claims to be preparing students for the working world by disallowing all redos forgets that adult professionals actually flourish through redos [and] retakes…. Surgeons practice on cadavers before doing surgeries on live patients. Architects redesign building plans until they meet all the specifications. Pilots rehearse landings and take-offs hundreds of times in simulators…before flying with real passengers. Lawyers practice debate and analysis of arguments before litigating real cases. Teachers become much more…effective by teaching the same content multiple times, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work each time.

LSAT. MCAT. Praxis. SAT. Bar exam. CPA exam. Driver’s licensure. Pilot’s licensure. Auto mechanic certification exam. Every one of these assessments…can be redone over and over for full credit. Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays or only under the watchful eye of a seasoned partner….

How pompous is it for a teacher, then, to declare to students, “This quiz/writing assignment/project/test cannot be redone for full credit. [This] policy prepares you best for the working world.”… The best preparation for the world beyond school is to learn essential content and skills well….

We improve with practice, descriptive feedback, and revising our practices in light of that feedback, followed by more practice, feedback, and revision. It’s the way authors write great books; it’s the way scientists discover; it’s the way machinists solve problems. Why would we deny these opportunities to the next generation? Providing feedback and asking students to redo assignments until those assignments match the standards set for them are not optional luxuries saved for when we have time; they’re the keys to thriving classrooms….

Not Soft, but Tough

It makes sense to grade students according to their performance on standards, not the routes they take to achieve those standards…. All grades at the end of the unit should be based on whether they understand oxidation, for example, not on how they learned about oxidation.

Suppose a teacher allows retakes frequently. Will colleagues, students, and parents consider that teacher soft in some way? No—quite the opposite…. Making students redo their learning until it meets high expectations demands far more of both students and teachers than letting them take a failing grade—but it also results in far more learning….

When it comes to deciding whether to allow a student to redo an assignment or assessment, consider the alternative—to let the student settle for work done poorly, ensuring that he or she doesn’t learn the content. Is this really the life lesson we want to teach?

Rick Wormeli, a 30-year teaching veteran, trains teachers and principals around the world in a variety of education topics. He’s the author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom (

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