School is a strange, contradictory place. To prepare students for the world, we separate them from it. We demand broad and simultaneous mastery of language, math, science, history and art from children who will most likely, as adults, make a living from a narrow subset of skills. And where real life offers chances for practice and refinement of abilities, school grading is often harsh, unforgiving and absolute.
Some of these contradictions are necessary. Kids can’t be thrust into adult life without social, emotional and mental preparation, and specialized skills must develop on a comprehensive foundation of knowledge. But the traditional notion of school exams and assessments as final, one-shot opportunities is slowly being overturned. Here’s why that’s a good thing.
Real Life Allows Practice
Life beyond school can be tough, but the challenges we face are rarely as simple as pass or fail. In tertiary studies, career paths and even relationships, we’re given opportunities to hone our skills through frequent practice.
As veteran teacher Rick Wormeli points out in the November 2011 Educational Leadership, “adult professionals actually flourish through redos, retakes and do-overs.” Architects design and redesign, journalists submit first drafts. Teachers perfect their material across successive classes. And, critically, most of the exams we face in our adult lives – whether it’s the bar exam, SAT or driver’s licence test – allow retakes with no negative repercussions. In each of these tests, it’s our final mastery of the subject, not our trouble along the way, that counts in the end.
Test Results Are Snapshots, Not Prophecies
Advocating for test retakes, eighth-grade teacher Anthony Armstrong writes, “the outcome of [a student’s] test is simply a reflection of their current – not permanent – abilities.” But a failed test with no possibility of a do-over becomes a permanent mark against a student’s name, even if they later go on to master the skills or knowledge involved. The message is, “Even if you work hard, the stain of this failure is here forever.” Why spend effort on something that can’t be improved?
Fear of failure may work as a motivator for students who are used to succeeding. For many others, it’s just another reason to feel anxious and resentful towards their education. Tests don’t need to be the stressful affairs we all grew up with: if they are used as signposts, rather than endpoints, tests can teach far more than historical dates or mathematical formulae.
Learning To Learn
On the surface, a test on the Declaration of Independence is about just that. You want your students to learn the usual whys and whens and hows because that information underscores a great deal of modern American culture and politics.
But a comprehensive education should do more than deliver content: it should nurture cross-disciplinary traits like critical thinking, determination and a desire for knowledge. It shouldn’t just teach content: it should teach how to learn. In an ideal world, every student graduates school with the motivation to seek out challenges, and the knowledge that there is value in effort and perseverance.
Allowing students to retake tests can point them in this direction. “You have achieved this mark today: imagine, with a little extra work, what you could achieve in a week’s time.” When grades are fluid indicators rather than permanent judgements, they cease to become the driving imperative behind education and learning itself becomes the goal.
Finding The Time
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about letting students retake tests; it’s another finding the time to do it. Teachers’ timetables are already packed to bursting. You may not be able to offer retakes on every test, or even most of them. Lay down strict ground rules from the beginning to avoid time-wasting. Let your students know that some retakes may be available at teacher discretion, provided they’re willing to work hard and reflect critically on their performance. Involve parents if you’re worried students won’t take the opportunity seriously.
There are now many time-saving online resources for testing students. Some provide instant feedback to students; others give teachers detailed reports that can help provide an overview of your class’ weaknesses. Check out Quia, Testmoz or ThatQuiz to start.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.