In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Council of Elrond declares that an evil ring can only be destroyed by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom, a volcano deep within the land of Mordor. Boromir, a Steward of Gondor, retorts, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
Similarly, one does not approach a summative assessment without ongoing deliberate practice and preparation. Back in 2009, I realized that many of my Geometry and Algebra II students were arriving at the foot of our final exam — a mathematical Mount Doom so to speak — woefully unprepared.
Part of this was due to the fact that they had struggled in earlier chapters and had given up hope. In fact, many of them had arrived in my class having largely despaired of success in math classes altogether. At the time, our department had a no-retakes policy, so a student who did badly on an assessment couldn’t do anything about it except come in before or after school in the hopes those skills could be shored up by the end of the semester. But the prospect of having to relearn the material without any commensurate improvement to their grade provided little motivation.
As a way of addressing this sense of apathy and hopelessness, I gained administrative approval to implement an after-school “skill recovery” program whereby students could reassess individual skills and concepts they had failed to master on the test. These short assessments each included 5–7 questions and required a 75–80% threshold to demonstrate mastery. Once students reached that threshold, all the points associated with that skill were added back to the test. Any prior assessments were always “No counted” or raised to the level of the most recent percentage to better reflect current mastery. Even with just a 75–80% threshold, I felt justified in giving back all the missed points because the questions on the assessments were often more far-ranging and diverse than the ones featured on the test, where perhaps only 1–3 questions were possible. Nearly all students and parents expressed praise for the program, with many communicating a wish that it be extended to other courses and subjects.
However, problems arose when certain kids began making my class a last priority due to this after-school option. If they didn’t study and bombed the exam, they knew they could use my skill recovery program to recover whatever points they’d lost. No one wants to continuously fail, but when staring down the barrel of multiple high-stakes, one-shot assessments in other classes, my class was getting short shrift.
Honestly, this strategy wouldn’t have bothered me except that these students frequently overestimated their ability to recover missed skills after school while learning new ones as we progressed to the next unit. Compounding this was the fact that many of the skills were needed immediately in that next unit. We needed urgency.
At the end of that year, I reached out to assessment expert and author of A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades Ken O’Connor, who I had heard speak back in 2005. Based on our exchanges, we wrote an article for Michigan Assessment Consortium addressing my conundrum. I explained what I had attempted and my disappointing results. Ken’s responded with the following advice:
Based on his description there is not much restructuring that is necessary but I think he could incorporate more scaffolding by being clear that reassessment opportunities occur only after there is evidence that students have engaged in ‘correctives’ (relearning and practice) and that reassessments may involve ‘opportunity cost,’ that is, they may occur at a time and place that is not convenient to the student. Both of these should cause students to give more appropriate priority to mathematics and not put off doing what they need to do to be successful in math because they feel more pressure in other subjects with more traditional approaches to grading.
While coming after school involves some opportunity cost, it wasn’t enough to make students prioritize success on their first opportunity. Additionally, the after-school program didn’t provide the necessary time or scaffolding for students to have done enough relearning.
Since then, I’ve realized the “tough love” element in assessment for learning. Ideally, our teaching methods help students to tap into their own intrinsic motivation for the subject, their natural curiosity and desire to learn. But when the surrounding system is built on extrinsic motivators — late penalties, zeroes, and one-shot, high-stakes assessments — teachers who pursue more supportive, progressive grading systems need to be able to “compete” without abandoning their principles.
In subsequent years, I have stressed the necessity of corrective activities and opportunity costs as prerequisites for retaking or redoing an assessment.
One does not simply retake an assessment.
It’s important to emphasize that these prerequisites are not designed as punishments or deterrents. I’m not trying to become the land of Mordor. Instead, I’m a little like Boromir: I want to make sure people know what they’re getting into. I want struggling students to continue preparing, continue learning. Ultimately, I want them to succeed. Sometimes, without significant opportunity costs, multiple opportunities can enable laziness, entitlement, and overconfidence.
Below I describe a couple methods I use to leverage this approach:
- My Quiz/Test Corrections Sheet
- My policy for redoing papers (I have since moved from teaching all math to all English classes!)
Quiz/Test Corrections Sheet
Students need to get a 75% or better on any quiz or test assessment I give. Anything less than that seems a clear indication of trouble. Anyone who gets less than 75% on a quiz or test must complete the Quiz/Test Corrections Sheet and take another quiz or test on their own time (not the same version of course). Additionally, anyone else who would like to retake a quiz or test may go through the same process. I may choose a specific time after school over the next week, or have them schedule a time with me when ready.
When the item in question is merely a matter of memorizing the meaning of a given term, I ask students to develop a meaningful mnemonic (e.g. the vocabulary word imminent sounds like “in a minute”). When the item involves the application or use of a term or concept, I ask students to provide an explanation for why the right answer was right or why the wrong answer was wrong. Finally, when the item simply involves evidence from a given place in the text, I ask students to provide a citation, scanning back through the text and copying it down in the context of its sentence.
I do not accept just writing down the correct answer, which I have obviously just given them in going over the quiz or test. Nor do I accept “I just misread the question” or “I made a stupid mistake.” By the end of this process, the student has done a lot of relearning, with or without my help. They aren’t just waltzing in unprepared asking for another opportunity.
Policy for Redoing Papers
This isn’t a handout but rather the procedure I include in my syllabus for students to sign.
Redoing Assignments: I encourage you to redo assignments when you receive a score you’d like to improve. To improve an assignment score, please (1) turn in or email me the original and revised version of the assignment, along with the original rubric; (2) highlight changes in the revised version; and (3) make sure you have made substantial improvements. I won’t accept “dink-and-dunk” attempts to improve one’s score! An assignment receiving an adequate score must be redone within a week of receiving it back.
In my experience teaching English, dink-and-dunk is the main way students abuse the redo policy, learning little in the process. They go through and fix all the spelling and punctuation, but address none of the more substantive critiques involving content, style, or organization. When students email me the two versions of the assignment, I like to minimize them so they each take up half the computer screen. A quick glance at the highlighted changes allows me to see what changes have been made and whether I am even going to reread this. If it doesn’t look substantive, I send it back with no change in score. I refuse to “nudge” the grade up bit by bit.
Again, this refusal doesn’t stem from any selfishness on my part, but rather from a commitment to the student’s ongoing learning and improvement.
After all, one does not simply walk into Mordor.
What are some methods you use as corrective activities before reassessment? Please comment below!