Should Students Get a ‘Do Over’? The Debate on Grading and Re-Doing Assignments Deepens

By Elizabeth Heubeck — March 10, 2023 4 min read
Tight crop of female hands grading papers.
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A student fails a test. Should the teacher allow a redo?

Based on recent Education Week polling and coverage, it depends on whom you ask.

Somewhat surprisingly, teachers and school leaders are not necessarily in agreement over this.

In a nationally representative poll of teachers this winter by the Edweek Research Center, respondents voted “the chance to redo assignments” 11th out of 24 options offered when asked what they thought was most likely to motivate students. The factor teachers thought would most likely motivate students? That turned out to be “offering more hands-on experiences.”

Incidentally, that same question posed to students ages 13 to 19 drew a much different response. Student respondents chose “a chance to redo assignments if I get a low grade” as the leading factor (out of 24 options) that would motivate them to work harder.

In a separate (but less scientific) poll posed to readers of Education Week’s The Savvy Principal newsletter, readers—who are mainly principals and other K–12 school leaders—were asked: Should students be allowed to redo assignments when they get a failing grade? Among 241 respondents, 83 percent said yes; 17 percent said no.

One school leader, who responded in the affirmative to the poll question, elaborated on her response: “Allowing students to revise and resubmit work fosters student reflection on their work, a growth mindset, and the opportunity to improve skills and deepen knowledge. Students learn it’s not about getting work done, it’s about getting it done well,” said Christine Davis, interim principal at Eric S. Smith Middle School in Ramsey, N.J.

Another school leader had a different take. “When we allow students to redo work,” wrote Robert Stephens, the head of Episcopal Day School in Pensacola, Fla., “we are inadvertently teaching them that there are no consequences for poor performance that results from bad decisions.”

What’s behind these differing opinions on the re-do?

Rick Wormeli, a former classroom teacher, educational consultant, and author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, has given a lot of thought to the re-do, and grading, in general. He has analyzed what grading represents; in what context it can motivate students; and how teachers can use it as part of the learning process.

Wormeli this week shared his insights with Education Week.

Teachers-in-training lack preparation on the how’s and why’s of assessments

Wormeli recalls an exit interview he had as a graduating college senior who had studied education in the 1980s.

“I scolded my professors and dean,” Wormeli recalled. “I said, ‘You guys gave me a stats course, but the real thing that students [studying to be teachers] worry about is: How do I grade my tests and quizzes? How do I know if my tests accurately report what kids learn?’”

Even today, Wormeli said, not many instructors who teach university courses for pre-service teachers have a strong background on ethical, accurate, and equitable grading practices. A proponent of such practices, Wormeli volunteered to serve on the assessing and reporting committee in the Northern Virginia school district where he taught. It allowed him the opportunity to raise questions about the purpose of grading and challenge existing notions and norms.

Challenging traditional notions of grading

“There are a lot of teachers that promote assessment as ‘gotcha accountability’ rather than assessment as instruction,” said Wormeli, who refers to this way of seeing the grading process as “transactional.”

Assigning poor grades to students is akin to acknowledging that you’ve caught them falling short, explained Wormeli. “It’s a hurtful and antiquated notion of assessment,” he said.

A low grade, particularly when there isn’t the opportunity to redo the assignment and raise the grade, breeds resentment, Wormeli said.

Grading as part of the learning process

Wormeli describes grades, when used most effectively, as part of the learning process. And if grades offer feedback as part of that process, they can be perceived as a piece of an evolving continuum.

“When teachers use grades as a way to provide students with feedback, then that feedback should be accompanied by considering how to help kids make it actionable,” Wormeli said.

Improving upon an existing grade by re-doing assignments would be the logical action step. “Redos” happen in the professional world all the time, he pointed out.

“In every single profession, we’ve found that reiteration is how someone becomes competent,” Wormeli said. “How is that achieved? Not by ‘one and done.’”

Wormeli has trained countless teachers; among them were people who entered the teaching profession as their second careers. “What’s really cool is that, in training of second-career teachers—software engineers, military personnel, etcetera—they all say ‘Of course you do re-do’s.’”

Changing teachers’ mindset about the re-do

Wormeli is familiar with the arguments teachers make against re-dos, especially the complaint that it will take too much of their time. He counters: It’s the re-learning that takes the time. And it’s the student who must do the heavy lifting, he said.

“I have to get across to a lot of teachers that it’s in the re-learning where you mature,” he said. “In the plan of re-learning, students have to submit to that plan.”

Denying a re-do gives students an escape from learning whatever was on the original assignment, Wormeli explained. Conversely, allowing students to redo an assignment signifies that what matters is that they learn the material.

“It’s a cultural mindshift,” he said. “It’s amazing how motivated kids are when they own their learning.”

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