Retakes as Mercy

The other evening I went to a housewarming party where there were a large number of current and graduated ACE teachers (I don’t say “former” ACE teachers, because once an ACE teacher, always an ACE teacher).

The topic of conversation inevitably turned to teaching, no matter how many times we scolded ourselves and reminded ourselves that we were supposed to be having “fun.” (Secretly, of course, I was thinking how talking about teaching is fun.) And someone brought up the whole assessments-only model that I have written about here a few times, and someone else brought up the usual objections to the model, and then someone else brought up retakes.

I have written before about why allowing retakes on tests, quizzes and essays is a good thing for students. Most teachers at my school don’t agree with me, and I understand that because this time last year I would have disagreed too. We grew up thinking of school a certain way and it’s hard to see why the traditional model should change. If you don’t prepare for a quiz and you flunk it, you flunk it. Better luck next time.

But apart from the fact that allowing retakes give students who otherwise would never learn the objective another chance to learn what they were supposed to learn in the first place, I’d like to talk about another dimension of the retake policy that just occurred to me:


Maybe it’s Pope Francis’ influence, but I really think Catholic school teachers should model their classroom policies on the Gospel as much as possible. That might be a small step towards solving “The Problem with Catholic Schools.”

So often the objection teachers and others make to retakes is “Well, the real world isn’t like that!” and “If you don’t come prepared to a job interview and you flunk the interview, you’re not getting the job.”

Apart from being a rather poor analogy based on a ill-conceived premise (we should make our policies in school reflect the “real world” as much as possible), such objections are also not very realistic.

Most people have gone to job interviews without enough preparation, or without the right type of preparation. And most of us have also experienced bad interviews. But most of us, after a bad interview, learned from it and tried again, at another interview. And eventually we got a job.

Similarly, if a student fails an assessment the first time, the only reason not to allow him to come see you, learn from his mistakes, and try again on a different but similar assessment is the idea that the student should be punished for his lack of preparation (or, in many cases, his lack of understanding).

But of course that is not a good reason at all, unless you think grades should be used as a form of punishment.

My retake policy requires students to come in during lunch or after school for extra help to discuss the first assessment and their mistakes, to develop a study plan, and the meet again to write a metacognitive letter explain how the student is planning to improve and make better academic choices. Then the student does a “retake”–a different assessment that covers the same objective as the first one.

I would say that the best consequence for not doing something right the first time is to do it right the next time.

“But he can do it right the next time,” you say. “On the next quiz!”

But then the student will never learn what he should have learned on the first quiz. And if your class, like most classes do, builds upon each concept as you go along, the student is now already primed to fail the next quiz because he failed the first one.

Perhaps most importantly, such an approach is not very merciful. The way the “real world” works is the way God works. And ultimately His world, the world of mercy, is the “real world.”

Second chances, as trite and as silly as they may sound, are actually the hallmark of the Gospels. Are such chances undeserved? Of course. But that’s what mercy is. It’s completely undeserved. The “good” thief on the cross, or Saint Matthew leaving his corrupt tax-collecting career behind, or Peter denying Jesus three times and still being made the leader of the Apostles– all of them got second chances, and third chances, and on and on.

God’s mercy is so lavish that we often resist it. But we are called to try to offer that same mercy to one another.

And because I teach in a Catholic school, I can mix theology and education as much as I please.


3 thoughts on “Retakes as Mercy

  1. I don’t mean to go off topic… but I just found your blog and I really like it. Now, here’s the off topic part: have you ever read AJ Cronin’s “Keys of the Kingdom”? Cronin was Catholic too (passed away years ago). Beautiful book. Fiction, about a priest named Fr. Chisholm. Strongly recommend.

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