Re-Learning and Re-Assessing: Practical Tips

Students write a test exam in a beautiful classroom

Not everyone is comfortable with re-do’s and re-takes, which are more appropriately recognized as re-learning (or learning properly) and re-assessing. Some of us experience pushback when suggesting these practices to colleagues, then succumb to those pressures thereby denying their use in our classes. As a result, our students don’t learn the required content and skills. This is something that needs to be addressed, but it is not our focus here. Instead, let’s cut directly to the practical side of re-learning and re-assessing.

Let’s remind ourselves of four operational tenets to create a common frame of reference and sense of “why” of re-learning and re-assessing:

  1. Repeated learning and assessment (re-iteration) with critical feedback, and improved performance because of that feedback, is one of the most effective ways any one person becomes competent in any field, including our own.
  2. It is the recovery process that teaches, not the label. Walking with students as they recover from mistakes and failures teaches more content and cultivates more maturity than do unrecoverable labels of “F” or “0.” Even more striking, denying students the opportunities to recover from these failing labels communicates that it is okay for students to remain incompetent in the material.
  3. There is a big difference between what we do with students in the learning process and what we demand of certified professionals in the field. We do not demand adult, “fully certified in the field” performance from morphing, insecure humans as our standard for performance in secondary schooling. Nor should we apply this thinking as a rationale for denying re-learning/re-assessing opportunities. It is ineffective and can even be abusive to require experienced, high-quality, post-certification performance in an adolescent’s one attempt at demonstrating competency during their learning process in a false bid to “prepare them for the working world.” To be clear, it is not in alignment with how adolescents and young adolescents learn.
  4. Falsifying the report of student proficiency does NOT teach students responsibility or prepare them for success in future courses. Frankly, it’s dishonest. Unfortunately, this can happen when averaging the score of a student’s first attempt at an assessment with the scores of later attempts at the same assessment, or when declaring a “ceiling” grade on any subsequent re-assessments (such as when declaring the highest score achievable on re-assessments as 70, even though the student demonstrates performance equated to a much higher score).

One quick caution before we begin with the practical side of things: Some students are really struggling academically and personally. If using these suggested practices to try to re-learn previous curriculum while also moving on with new curriculum is overwhelming a student, toss them. Seriously, our priority is compassion before curriculum, grace before accountability. Depending on the situation, it’s okay to get rid of some of these requirements and instead delay the timing until later in the year, remove some of the “nice to know, but not germane” standards, express evidence of two or more standards in one product, build executive function skills, do smaller bits at a time, and differentiate robustly. Driving this into dysfunctionality is never helpful, and from the student’s perspective, nor is working only on our deficits and trying to play catch-up. In short, break the rules as needed to maintain mental health.

The Practical in Re-Learning/Re-Assessing
Okay, let’s connect the “why” to the “how” with practical tips and insights that make re-learning/re-assessing doable. Even better, they’ll also help students mature and learn the curriculum:

First, re-learning/re-assessing without providing timely, helpful feedback usually does not work well. As we move into re-assessing, we simultaneously need to get up to speed on descriptive feedback principles and techniques if we’re not already well fortified there. Useful feedback has significant, positive impact on student learning. Don’t undermine it by making it nonactionable, such as when we give feedback but deny the opportunity to revise work products in light of that feedback. Consider:

“Studies of students’ perceptions of feedback through the world (2018) show that students perceive as positive both descriptions of what they did well and constructive suggestions for improvement, as long as they are given a chance to use those suggestions.”
– Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart, Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for Instructional Leaders, ASCD 2019, p. 60,

AMLE has webinars and other resources on descriptive feedback in case you’d like to dive deeper into this skillset. Or reach out to me for suggested books on the topic.  I also recommend Chapter 4 in Myron Dueck’s new book, Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage (ASCD, 2021). In it, he offers a thoughtful approach to helping students analyze and provide their own feedback, then use that data constructively in their re-learning and re-assessing process.

Second, start small to keep your sanity when first implementing re-learning/re-assessment policies. You may want to identify the four to eight most leveraging (important) standards you teach for the year and only do this process for them, as they are most pivotal to future success. Then, of course, add in as many of the secondary level standards (important, but less so) as you can manage. You may also want to offer only two re-assessments before it becomes too cumbersome to maintain repeated attempts while navigating the curriculum ahead.  Of course, denying students re-assessment opportunities and thereby limiting their learning and achievement is a bitter pill to swallow, so let’s be very sure this is an acceptable outcome. It usually isn’t.

One other sanity saver: you may need to limit re-learning/re-assessment opportunities to all weeks of the marking period except the last week, as that week is protected for report cards, cleaning/ordering equipment, writing recommendations, and the avalanche of clerical things that usually occur during that time. If students want to re-assess during that last week, instead wait until the first week of the new marking period. If they demonstrate higher performance later in the year, submit a grade change request to revise the student’s record accordingly.

Third, re-learning/re-assessing is always done at the teacher’s discretion, not the parent’s or the student’s. We get to decide what is reasonable in any given situation, not the family. Include the due process words “at teacher discretion” in your syllabi’s grading policy statement.

Fourth, ask students to submit a thoughtful plan of re-learning that is acceptable to us before granting the re-assessment opportunity. Evidence of that re-learning must be submitted prior to the re-assessment. Substantive re-learning plans usually list at least four to eight separate learning activities. These can be drawn from a menu of options we brainstorm with the class, or from something generated by the student alone. As an example, a student’s re-learning plan may include the following activities:

  • create and practice flash cards,
  • view online tutorials identified by us,
  • engage in peer-tutoring,
  • attend a review session with us,
  • create some Sketchnotes about the topic,
  • create two mnemonic devices for the big concepts, and
  • draw five shape spellings of the major vocabulary.

Quick tip: Look at university and college student services center websites. They often have great studying ideas we can use with our students as well!

Students then map out the week and record each day the re-learning activities they will do as they prepare for re-assessment. We reserve the right to augment or revise the re-learning plan as needed and make sure we, the student, and the student’s parent(s) sign off on the plan. This task analysis experience is significantly maturing for middle and high school students.

Fifth, as appropriate, ask students to write letters explaining the differences between the first and subsequent attempts, what new decisions they made that they did not make before, and what they learned about themselves as a maturing student in the process. We can also ask students to include the original attempt with the revised assessment in order to make a true comparison.

Sixth, we reserve the right to give alternative versions of any assessment for subsequent attempts. These are not more difficult, as they are assessing the same evidence, but they may be perceived as such because we’re changing the format so students don’t simply memorize answers from the first attempt. Any format that requires demonstration of the same identified evidence of proficiency is acceptable here, even something artistic, so long as they can clearly point out the evidence to us. My re-assessments have often been 15-minute interviews at my desk while the class worked on something, or during the hour before or after school. These can be demanding experiences for students because we ask follow-up questions to clarify the student’s thinking. Alternatively, I’ve sat with students while watching on-line videos about a topic, asking students to evaluate the accuracy of the information presented. Consider this ratio, too: it’s the re-learning that takes the time, not the re-assessment itself. So, let’s focus energy on the proper learning of content instead of worrying about arranging the re-assessment.

Seventh, if a test is organized into sections, “bank” successful sections on which the student has done well. Rather than re-take the entire exam, we can request students only redo the sections on which they scored poorly. If they demonstrated poor performance, however, with something that is large or interwoven such as playing concertos, writing thematic essays, conducting extended laboratory processes, running long distances, or creating agile or more efficient code, then they need to re-do the whole thing, not just a portion.

Eighth, if a student demonstrates proficiency after grades have been submitted for the marking period, a grade change request indicating the higher proficiency should be submitted in the student’s academic record.

Ninth, identify a deadline by which the re-assessment needs to be accomplished or the grade is permanent. This deadline, of course, may be adjusted at any point by the teacher. I’ve had students come to me in near tears on the assigned day of the re-assessment, explaining that they weren’t quite ready to re-submit their work or sit for the test re-do. I have chosen to extend the deadline another three days but required a new plan of re-learning, as the last one obviously didn’t work. This is not “going soft” on deadlines; this is more demanding – I will not let them escape their learning. What is going soft is caving into their immaturity and assigning an unrecoverable “F” or “0” with a quick, “hope this teaches you a lesson.” Such statements are abdications of our adult role and deeply uninformed about best practice for teaching adolescents.

Tenth, be careful with credit recovery programs. Allowing students to do something else for the re-assessment that does not demonstrate the same evidence of learning is dishonest. It is wonderful if a student takes an on-line course or does extensive mentoring or independent study to learn the course content properly, but he still must demonstrate the required evidence of proficiency for the course. So, no: students can’t do an alternative project for course credit that doesn’t demonstrate the same required evidence of proficiency. But if we creatively find a way to demonstrate the same evidence required by the course via another route – then, yes, more power to the student and let’s go for it!

Marking and Scoring Reminders

  • Let’s stop giving half a point for each correction students make on the original assessment. If they demonstrate 100% proficiency but we record only 50%, we’re making an inaccurate report of learning. In addition, simply making corrections is insufficient for a full re-assessment. Such a task is more so a proper learning experience.
  • If students achieve any grade or score less than an A, 4.0, or the top of our grading scale, they are allowed to redo assignments and assessments. This isn’t just for the lowest performers and we should not stand in the way of a student achieving excellence. As long as they show significantly higher performance warranting a report in the next level of proficiency, we encourage it. We will not change a grade, however, for merely cosmetic improvements that don’t show any difference in evidence of the standard.
  • We do not impose ceiling grades because we do not lie to students and parents about student learning and we do not perpetuate the false premise that we’re somehow being fair to students who earned high scores on first attempts by denying accurate scores to classmates on their subsequent attempts.
  • Instead of averaging previous scores with new ones, we replace the earlier grade with the report of most recent evidence of proficiency as it is the most accurate. Averaging current competence reports with previous “less than” competence reports knowingly falsifies the grade.
  • It is much easier to conduct re-learning and re-assessment if we disaggregate scores on our assessments by listing the standards being assessed on the cover page of the test. This way, we clearly identify only those areas where the process need be applied.
  • The gradebook is cumulative for the year. Students can achieve, and teachers can change grades as a result, any time during the year – even for content from earlier marking periods. We are hired to teach so that students learn the material, whatever it takes. We are not hired to play “gotcha,” limiting learning to one date on a uniform calendar imposed arbitrarily on the next generation.
  • If students are re-taking the whole course for full credit as the re-assessment option, then the earlier, lower grade is expunged from the record. The new, hopefully higher, grade is the most accurate indicator of current proficiency.

American poet, Nikki Giovanni, once said, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.”  We’ve seen that in teaching, too. Our lessons look good on paper or screen when we plan them, but occasionally they bomb when applied the next morning. We worry about this, of course, but it’s what we do the next day to pick up the pieces and do something constructive with them that is the testimony to our professionalism.

The trick here is for students and teachers to see mistakes and seeming failures as information gathering, not an indictment. We are not held to our digressions. Maturation and scholarliness flourish in a cycle of coach, attempt, miss, coach, recover, attempt, coach, recover, succeed – and repeat. Let’s take on the challenge of re-learning/re-assessing mechanics so we can live up to their fundamental principles and powerful effects: compassion and successful learning. We operate here not from despair, but hope. Real futures are made of the stuff.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018 and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released in 2019. He can be reached at rick@rickwormeli.onmicrosoft.com, @rickwormeli2, and at www.rickwormeli.com.

Comments

  1. The topic of re-assessment always seems to be a sticky discussion as there are so many passionate views on the topic. Ultimately I believe this article hits the nail on the head regarding the subject. There is too much focus on the act of re-assessment itself that there is little in the way of authentic re-learning in these situations. The district I am working with has recently implemented a standards-based approach allowing for indefinite re-assessments towards standards mastery, but many of the teachers do not implement plans for re-learning of the material. This has generally led to many of the students taking the assessment over and over without any real attempt to learn the standard. Maintaining the connection between re-learning and re-assessment is the way we need to handle standards based learning, because doing otherwise is a disservice to the students and unnecessary extra work for the teachers.