Grading/Retesting/Turning it in whenever you want…

I’ve been thinking about this idea for quite some time – but that’s not why it’s taken me so long to post. Trying to get my ideas together on reteaching/retesting/no deadlines/grading in general isn’t the easiest thing to do. The simple fact of the matter is that these issues are much more complex in practice than people would want you to think they are theoretically.

I’ve come around a lot on the whole idea of deadlines, turning in work on time, when we turn it in doesn’t matter as long as we show mastery idea and even though I have changed my ideology on this SOMEWHAT, it hasn’t changed completely.

Putting it simply, I have listened to what many, many others have said. I’ve heard the whole “how many chances do you get to take the Driver’s License test?” analogy thrown out ad nauseum and I get it. But I’d also say that if I am going sky diving, I want my parachute packed right the first time; if I’m having a brain tumor removed, I only want my skull cracked open once. So go ahead and tell me that what the students are doing isn’t sky diving or brain surgery, and I get it, but there should still be the DESIRE to get it right the first time. This isn’t what I’ve seen – instead I’ve seen a  lack of desire because a student knows she has an infinite amount of chances to get it perfect.

While I agree with the idea in theory, I just don’t agree with what I see in practice. I think part of this comes down to a decline in the idea of ethics/morality on the part of many, but certainly not all students  (and that could be the subject of about 20 blog posts).

Now I’d like to set some things straight. I have no issues with a student who comes to me and tells me that she just didn’t get it, that she needs more help and wants that help.  I will allow that student to come in for extra help any day of the week and retest as many times as possible if she shows this desire. The problem is that I’m not seeing this desire nearly enough — and I’m working with many of our “best and brightest.” Instead, I see and hear much more of the “well, if I can take the test 30 times, I don’t need to study this time and so I won’t” variety.  And that’s what makes it frustrating for me.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear this exact question from a student right after I introduce an assignment such as an analysis essay tracing the changes seen in Eliezer’s faith during Night: “How many points will this be worth?” What I wouldn’t give to work in a system that doesn’t include questions like that…

I have received hundreds of parental phone calls and emails in my 15+ years of teaching in regards to a child’s grade. Not once have I ever been asked what skills the child is lacking. Not once have I been asked what could be one to help achieve the standards desired. Not once have I been asked what could be done in order for the child to demonstrate mastery of a standard. Instead, I have heard this, over and over: What does Jimmy need to do to get the A he deserves? Yes, I chose the words to that question with care. They represent the typical question being asked by the parent. Deserves is the word used time after time.

What it really comes down to is that we want to implement a perfect world theory into a not-so-perfect world reality.

In the real world, we live within the confines of deadlines, so why shouldn’t we prepare our students for this reality? I often get a kick out of a system that tells me to be lenient on deadlines, yet mandates that I have my grades turned in by a certain time – just a little bit of hypocrisy there, don’t you think???

Gimme an A - just... GIMME AN A!!!

Gimme an A – just… GIMME AN A!!!

Now let’s switch to the idea of grading. I TRULY wish that we could eliminate grading – I really do. As an English teacher, I absolutely believe that my role as a teacher should be more of that of a coach when regarding the grading of student writing. I try VERY hard to provide as much feedback on papers as possible and then I hand back the papers I’ve toiled over and watch… as the students don’t read a word I’ve written other than the score. Unfortunately, I just haven’t seen the process matter to them — the only thing that does is that score on the top of the page.

So how do we make this shift happen with our students? We can agree/disagree on this until we’re blue in the face, but until our students — AND THEIR PARENTS — come around to this way of thinking, we’re just doing what you see below over and over and over…


We want the students to care, we want them to meet standards and we want the meeting of this standard to be the goal, not the letter grade or percentage attached to it. So let’s just get rid of that grade or percentage — sounds easy, right? Except it isn’t. In all honesty, I’d equate it to completely eliminating the drinking age in our country — all you know what would break loose. Can you imagine the emails and phone calls we’d get from parents? What do you mean my darling Sally exceeded expectations on writing complex sentences yet didn’t receive an A for doing so? What am I supposed to report to Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Carnegie Mellon/Slippery Rock?

Which brings me to my final point on this post that is already too long (thank you if you’ve made it this far!) How do we report these things out to the next (collegiate) level? We often get caught up in all of these things that need to be changed in our system of educating our students – but rarely do I hear of change being suggested amongst our colleges and universities. I don’t hear about retesting at the college level or a lack of deadlines. Thankfully, I constantly hear from former students and every single time I ask them if they experience any of the following at the collegiate level (their answer after the scenario):

  • Cooperative (group) work  — very, very rarely
  • Ability to turn work in late — very, very rarely
  • Retesting — never

Former students typically laugh when I ask them these questions and many feel they’ve been hurt at the next level by not being held to a high enough standard at the high school level.  We make things too easy for them and we spoonfeed them entirely too much. Perhaps if these theories are so sound, then they should be adopted by those in our systems of higher education as well?

Having said all of this, I can tell you that I’ve listened to many people who are, I’m sure, much smarter than I am espouse these principles. So there must be something correct to them, right?

I don’t have all the answers, by any means, but I’d love to hear your input on these ideas.

5 thoughts on “Grading/Retesting/Turning it in whenever you want…

  1. I’m going to try to keep this short…. But I think administrators are starting to lose the idea of what the purpose of their level of education is supposed to accomplish. Besides learning the curriculum (which seems like it’s changed A LOT since I’ve graduated), students also need to be prepared for the next level of life and education.
    Having a boss and owners that expect results above and beyond what the elements are allowing, I am truly grateful for teachers who made us turn things in on time and tried to prepare us for the inevitable realities of the world with group projects and the stuff that everyone hates.

    Parents have their own contribution to the problem of lazy students, but that’s another monster to tackle.

    Overall I think students need more structure in schools because it seems like it’s the ONLY place that will give them any kind of discipline.

  2. “I don’t hear about retesting at the college level or a lack of deadlines.” Read my post about college senior/grad courses graded that way:

    One way to keep them from abusing the “I can always redo it” is to have the homework keep coming (so that redoing work makes them fall behind). Another is to raise standards slightly on each repeat. Another is to have subsequent assignments build on earlier ones, so that if they have not gotten the earlier assignment working yet, they have doubled difficulty with the later one.

  3. Group work is common in engineering, but generally only at the senior level, after training in how to form and manage a group—students have to unlearn all the counter-productive notions they got about working in groups in K–12. The problem with most K–12 group work is that the jobs are too small, and it is less work for everyone just to have the best student in the group do all the work. The overhead of managing and running a group is only justified if the work is too big for even the best person in the group to do alone. (There are some K–12 groups that work properly, generally not in the core subjects but “extras” like theater, band, and sports.)

  4. I appreciate you taking the time to read as well as comment. I found your own post on grading to be interesting. From what I’m seeing, you’ve played around with it as well. Are you finding that the students at your level are still taking advantage of this? Like you, I am not looking for the students to simply regurgitate my comments, so my feedback in regards to what is incorrect is more along the lines of “inconsistent verb tense throughout” or “vary sentence structures” rather than actually correcting the mistakes, which is what they’ve grown accustomed to in many cases. At a younger, less mature level I see very few students who are willing to do the work necessary to redo things properly. Are you seeing the effort from yours?

    • Yes. In one class this Fall a quarter of the grading I did was grading redone assignments.

      Last Spring, in a senior thesis writing seminar, most of the senior theses improved substantially in 10 weeks after 4 rounds of feedback. Most of the students were adding new material with each draft, and the new material often came in with better organization (better paragraph structure, more coherent flow, better grammar, …) than what they had been providing initially. They also got better about providing detailed figure captions and proper citations. I don’t know whether the lessons learned will stick with them, but I did see improvement.

      Similarly on programming assignments—students got better about documenting their functions and variables (though variable documentation was still somewhat weak even at the end of the quarter). There was clear evidence that students were thinking about the edge cases rather than just the usual cases by the end of the quarter. On the penultimate assignment, there was not time to provide detailed feedback, but I let each student know whether they had passed all the I/O tests, and which ones their programs had choked on. Several students redid their programs with just that information, and I saw the highest success rate on this program that I’ve ever seen.

      I had one student who had to do several of the early assignments 3 or 4 times before he got them right—he then realized that his programming skill was not where it ought to be and hired a tutor to help him learn programming and Python. By the end of the quarter he was averaging a B–, and even got an A– on the hardest programming assignment of the quarter. He clearly learned a lot by doing the course, though he worked very hard to get there.

      Another student, who had a straight A average in previous programming classes, but started with as little actual programming skill as the student who struggled through, dropped when he found that he couldn’t debug his programs into existence and there was no TA to trick into doing his debugging for him—I have a lot more respect for the student who sweated to learn the material than the A student who dropped the course rather than risk his GPA—too bad that med schools will favor the lazy one who avoided anything he couldn’t already do or trick someone into doing for him.

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