The Power of the Do-Over

When I was little, my family and I used to play a lot of board games. My mom had a policy when we played basically any game – she called it “taking a cheat” but it was essentially a do-over on a turn that we weren’t happy with. We each got one “cheat” per game and had to use it judiciously and kindly. It wasn’t to ruin the game for another person, but a respite from rolling, say, four “lose your turns” in a row. While it sounds dishonest, I loved my mom’s policy of “taking a cheat” – it made the game feel more fair somehow, like it leveled the proverbial playing field, because everyone had that one opportunity for a do-over.

I started thinking about my mom’s rule recently when I read a post in a Facebook group for French teachers. The original poster was wondering about other members’ policies regarding assessment retakes, and one member commented something to the effect that retakes are unfair because when everyone has the chance to get an A, that dilutes the success of the students who did well the first time around.

Insert record-scratching sound here.

I’m not trying to be judgmental and I didn’t respond to that teacher’s comment because I recognize not everyone is at the same place in the journey to become a great teacher, whatever that looks like for each of us personally. Heck, I used to be of a similar mindset – no retakes! There are no retakes in college, after all! You had your chance, you clearly didn’t do well enough, and you have to live with the grade that you earned!

In all honesty, I am ashamed of past me when I think about that attitude, especially because my current perspective could not be any more different. Sure, most college classes don’t allow the students to retake assessments (that’s another can of worms, but whatever) but aren’t I preparing my students for life after high school? Let’s think for a second about some of the major tests of adolescence and adulthood that can be retaken – multiple times, even:

  • Driver’s test
  • The ACT or SAT
  • Medical board exams or the NCLEX for nurses
  • Teacher certification tests
  • The Bar exam

And guess what? There’s no note that goes on your test results saying “retaken X times.” A driver’s license obtained on the second try is just as valid as one obtained the first time around, and it certainly doesn’t invalidate the success of someone who passed on the first try. Who cares?

Per my syllabus, I allow my students to re-take any assessment that does not hit at minimum the “Approaching Expectations” criteria of my rubric (a C grade). Honestly, though? If a student who had gotten an 80% on an assessment came to me and said, “Mademoiselle, I really think I could do better, can I retake that assessment?” I would probably say yes. Who am I to discourage a student from wanting to do better?

Many advocates of assessment retakes (that I have encountered, anyway, CERTAINLY not all of them) operate on the belief that “everyone has a bad day – grant them grace.” I don’t disagree with that, but I’d like to encourage you to consider something a little deeper. Prohibiting students from retaking failed assessments sends a message – a dangerous one – that if you don’t acquire knowledge or skills at the same rate as your peers, you will not be successful.

Marinate on that for a second. If, like me, you believe that all students are individuals and that they are fundamentally different and unique, why would you want to penalize them for living up to that principle? If we truly want to foster true student growth, what better way than to offer them the opportunity to say, At first I didn’t understand X, but now I can prove that I do? Isn’t that what growth is all about?

Just some food for thought. Bonne continuation!



13 thoughts on “The Power of the Do-Over

  1. Very interesting. Do you require students that get below a C to retest? Or is it their decision? Do you require any practice work before being allowed to retest? The whole concept of Mastery Learning is something that our school is investigating and considering adopting.


    1. I do not require retakes, it’s up to the kids to initiate and follow through. This means that ultimately the onus is on them to explain to Mom and Dad why their grades are what they are if they choose not to retest. I also don’t require any additional practice work but I make myself available before/after school for students who want extra help before the retake.


  2. How can you make sure that they are retaking it to “acquire” the language and not just retaking having memorized material they just saw on your quiz? Do you assss them with a whole new quiz? Mulling over how to so this next year as I fear a lot are trying to cheat the system.


    1. Hi Teresa! I only give performance assessments, so I will change the task to be similar but not exactly the same which eliminates memorizing the answers. In the case of interpretive assessments, I am such a resource hoarder that I will make a new assessment based on a similar resource.


  3. I’m listening really hard and having many conversations about this now (and honestly for the past several years). I struggle with there are real consequences to not doing well on the boards, certification tests, the bar. For instance, you can’t instantly retake it requiring usually a delay, cost, and you could miss out on a job opportunity. Is that more like you can fail the class and retake it next semester?

    But even if I put that aside, how do you practically do it? How many retakes can you do and how many times? For me, it’s a very real practical physical time restraints…retake until you get the grade you want? I can’t imagine having time in my day for that…what would I give up?

    As I switch to a more language acquisition approach, the latest assessment becomes the grade sits with me better…however, I work with teenagers that if they thought that would goof off and not pay attention until the end thinking they could pull it out. This wouldn’t work. Heck, I understand human nature. Am I missing something?

    I’m honestly talking through this with you now not as a criticism, but asking for your honest opinions as you seemed to have already taken this journey and may have answers for these questions.


    1. I struggled with all of these same questions, too! It is such a mindset change and it can be an uncomfortable process to address these things with ourselves (it was for me, at least).

      My entire philosophy is based on the idea that I teach teenagers, not law students or eventual teachers or future doctors. I can’t focus on preparing them for some hypothetical “what-if” adult scenario because nobody, not even the students themselves, really know where they’ll be once they leave our building and head off into the real world. There may well be a day that comes that a student takes the Bar exam, fails it and misses a job opportunity. But the point is that she can still retake. She can still become a lawyer, and there WILL be other job opportunities.

      I hear a lot of teachers today who make comments about this generation lacking grit and being afraid to take risks for fear of being wrong – but with the consequences of a traditional grading system, who can blame them? I want to cultivate a culture of learning and risk-taking in my classroom, which means providing students with opportunities to prove their growth and progress.

      Logistically, it actually is not that much of a drain on my time, truly! In using proficiency-based assessments and rubrics,I truly do not have many students who fall into “failing” territory. If they do, I require that they confirm their desire to retake the assessment with me, sign up for an appointment on my class calendar so I have some time to prepare, and then show up. I take whatever grade is higher (usually the retake) and that’s been that. I have never had a student want to retest multiple times.

      I can’t comment on your question about goofing around and using retakes as a crutch because I haven’t experienced it myself! What I’ve found in switching to a performance-based environment is that the students have started to recognize how much in-class performance matters and they generally rise to that occasion.

      I definitely do NOT have all of the answers and my system is faaaaar from perfect! Just trying to give some food for thought!


  4. Yup. The grading system for too many is used as punishment rather than sharing information about what our students know. Our profession, especially wlc teachers need to take a hard look at our activities and assessment styles. Change is hard. We need to stop resisting and living in the old ways and be the first and strongest leaders in our schools rather than the resistors. People have to stop zeroes too… report cards should have better conduct or citizenship marks for bad student behavior and one pure section for content.


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