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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 09, 2011

Re-tests: How many chances do you expect to have?

“Sensei, I know I missed one third of all your classes, slept in most of the others, never completed a single homework assignment, mostly ignored other students in pair work or teamwork and scored 40% on the role-play test and 20% on the final paper exam. But I get to do a re-test! Is it OK if I write a one-page English report on my summer holiday experience in order to pass?”

“Why of course! Even though you have done virtually nothing in the class, have not improved your English at all, and have in no way indicated that you will be ready for the course at the next level, I will happily give you full credit if you throw together a one-page English report on any topic of your choosing the day before final grades are due. That should be more than enough to get full course credit.”

This scenario would be a wet dream for some students. Ah, re-tests! The academic repository of cheap redemption for conveniently “remorseful” miscreants. Tertiary education’s equivalency to deathbed conversions by Mafia dons. Obviously the re-test system can be abused and render the notion of having gone through a learning process, having completed the intellectual requirements of passing through a course, redundant. But I’m actually in favor of the whole notion of re-testing. With certain caveats, that is.

At my own university (and I believe that our system is quite standardized) 60% constitutes a passing grade. When classes actually finish and grades calculated (which is very soon if you are using some type of ongoing assessment) grades can be submitted. Those students who have over 60% will receive a circle (they'll see their actual score later), indicating no re-test is necessary. Under 30 means an automatic fail, an X, with no possibility of redress. A score of 30-60 produces a triangle, which means that the student must officially be re-tested (content and subsequent grading of course being entirely up to the individual teacher). More than three unexcused absences over the semester also constitutes an automatic fail.

Actually, these numbers in and of themselves mean very little. The notion that a student ‘got a 65’ doesn’t really refer to anything objective or concrete- unless that is your course evaluation consists entirely of discrete point factoids which cumulatively represent the entire level of attainment expected from the course. And, frankly speaking, if you are evaluating your English classes like that you are probably not tuned in enough to be reading the ELTNews website in the first place.

The problem is that there are certain students who do very little all year but suddenly become contrite when they realize they are in deep doo-doo. You want to fail them- not so much out of a sense of revenge or a raw desire to punish but because you have a sense of justice. Passing them despite having achieved so little cheapens the work of students who actually have made an effort. And word will soon get around that you are ‘easy’. A pushover pedagogue. More students in the future will try to get away with doing the bare minimum once a precedent is set.

But in order to have them bypass the re-test requirement and fail outright I have to score these students at under 30. And in ongoing assessment, with role-plays and team projects included in the scoring, it is hard to give anyone a 20 or 25. You could of course jigger the scores. There’s nothing nefarious in doing so. After all, one assignment may be very easy and everyone scores over 80 but that's only because you have made that assignment simple. It's relative to the task. It’s not an indicator of some sacrosanct holy writ from God above that the student is in some empirically verifiable sense an ‘A’ student. You can decide outright if the student hasn't met the requirements and duly give him or her a 29. No one (at least not at my university) will doubt you on this matter although you might well expect a visit from a teary-eyed student demanding to know why he got a 29% final grade when in fact you gave his classroom team presentation a whole 50%!

Teachers have varying feelings about re-tests. Some feel that if you didn’t make the grade the first time round, that’s it. How many chances do you expect? If you don’t make the grade first time around you repeat it next year. Simple as that. Standardized tests don’t give you a re-test if you fail until the next year/season that they are administered. Why should I?

And it's true that re-tests are meaningless when the re-test task is just a piece of busy work- the old 'Ok- write me a report' fob-off. In that case, the re-test serves only as a type of punishment and has no pedagogical value. A meaningful re-test has to connect to actual course content- to somehow fulfill the stated course goals. The popular notion that a student can or should pass by filing some last-minute report is the equivalent of the military, ‘Drop and give me twenty!”.

Actually, there are very good reasons why you should have several students do re-tests. The first is that if you think the student doesn’t know enough yet or hasn’t displayed the expected level of skill having a re-test motivates them to do better. Re-tests have diagnostic value too. If students know in what areas they performed poorly, where their weak points are, they can make amends and fix those leaks. And isn’t this what education is about- getting students up to the expected or required level? Being aware of, working and improving on their deficiencies?

Or perhaps the student simply bungled a major assignment. Maybe they approached it the wrong way, or they had some formal difficulties understanding what was required or expected, they didn’t quite get the gravity of the assignment. Such students deserve a chance to redeem themselves- and these students, unlike the few who are just lazy and think simply be being physically in the classroom that they should get an automatic pass, are truly grateful for the opportunity. They invariably learn something in the process.

And what happens to the true laggards? Well, they get their re-test and almost invariably they make a complete hash of that too. What did you expect? You haven’t paid attention to anything all year. So see you in the next one.

What policies or thoughts do readers have regarding re-tests?

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If a student has failed because they got a bad score on a test or report, I'll let them resubmit that piece of work.

If they failed through lack of attendance/participation/coursework, they stay failed.

Hasn't really come up so far!

I wonder what Ben or others think of those students who re-submit work and it's still not up to par. Especially if this is combined with low scores in other parts of the course. It seems to me that such students shouldn't receive course credit because they come up short in terms of both having completed the process- and the product.

The dilemma in my own uni is that if they fail Communication English 1, even one semester thereof, they automatically become ryunen-sei (year repeaters), which seems to be a harsh result.

Ben, when you say bad score on a report, isn't that the same as saying coursework?

I always seem to get someone with 55-59% every semester, usually 2-3 people. It's disheartening to me to have to deal with that (we have no re-test policy). I first tell the student to recheck the final exam in case I made an error in grading. No teacher mistakes there? Well, then, let's see what my Excel spreadsheet says...

Uh, you didn't bother to hand in some assignments, which also means you were absent and didn't bother to talk to me about what was required, despite the fact that it's something I discuss on the first day of class and have written clearly on the handout (which everyone gets, even if they showed up first on the second or third day of class). To me, that's no excuse. Zero for that score is zero.

Oh, I also see you did poorly in most/all of your other work. To be fair, did you happen to save any of that work so that I can go over it and check for my mistakes...? Uh, I see, you either don't keep homework to look over again, or it's so badly crumpled in your gym bag or lost in that plastic file that spills out onto the floor... well, uh, what should I do now?

Resubmit a test with a bad score? No. Why should they have such a chance? They were given a fair amount of time to study for it, just like everyone else.

The stickler that always hits me between the eyes is when a student says he actually needs the course to graduate. My response is usually the same: you waited until the 4th year (or in the case of veterinary med students, 6th year) to take a first-year English course, perhaps even 2 or 3 of them, hoping that you'd eke out a 60%, but your other studies and ineptitude and gap of 3-5 years of no English studies pretty much made that impossible. Why should I break my rules and school policy by letting you do some extra credit work?

What is so harsh about that? It's strict, yes, but rules are clearly laid out (not just by me), and a student will have to get used to the real world which is full of rules (and laws). Learn them early, pick up some study/discipline habits now, and you won't be groveling to your boss for a promotion that you clearly don't deserve a few years later.

"The dilemma in my own uni is that if they fail Communication English 1, even one semester thereof, they automatically become ryunen-sei (year repeaters), which seems to be a harsh result."

In my experience it's actually quite difficult to fail university English Communication courses, at least first year compulsory ones. A student needs to combine poor attendance, a few well-missed assignments, and a complete lack of communication with the instructor, which all add up to an overall *unwillingness* to achieve (as opposed to mere inability). Even then, at my uni, teachers are given up to 4 discretionary "Teacher's Points" that we can use to bump a student up to a 60 from a 56-59 if we feel that they put in an honest effort and didn't quite make it.

So, yes, a fail is a harsh result--but it's also usually quite warranted!

Biff Frederikson Instigate a system where all students clearly know in advance as to what they need to do to acheive a C,B or A pass with any assignment or presentation.

Secondly, state clearly at the start of each lesson, as to what the teaching point is - not all students find it easy to sort out the teacher waffle from the points that are meant to be learnt.

Thirdly, be an inspirational, or at least vaguely motivating, type of teacher so that students will want to come to class (and not fall asleep during them.) Retesting is not a problem if the criteria is fair, objective and to the same standard as that of the original testing, whether that be a second chance at a similar exam, or resubmitting an assignment to the higher standard that would have been required for the original pass. If students are confused by getting 80% in an "easy" test, then failing the course, perhaps teachers (or the school as a whole) should be looking at how and what they assess, the possibility of grading to a moderated standard and clearly communicating that to students.

This post reminded me of a university class where everyone in the class earned an A grade pass. That earned an indepth inquiry, which resulted in the realisation that the class had great teachers, with very clear guidelines on what was needed to pass.

At the uni I work at we are given quite a bit of freedom to fail students without having to justify ourselves very much. If a student fails the compulsory Oral Comm class they have to take it again and again until they pass it. But if the student ends up being a fourth year student and still hasn't passed the compulsory oral comm class then we are asked to do what we can to pass them so that they can graduate. I wonder if any other unis out there "encourage" teachers to pass students who are in their fourth year and are in danger of not being able to graduate unless they pass their oral comm class.

Let's face it, with the dwindling population here in Japan there is going to be (if there isn't already) a serious problem for unis to stay alive. And if word gets out that XX uni is a pain the butt to graduate from because the english teachers are a bunch of hard asses then that isn't good for business. It's a tricky line we walk between being educators and being employees in a "business" which is trying to stay afloat.

The students that fail our Comms1 courses repeat it. The problem is that 2nd year they are on our Boston campus, and it is not offered there. So they repeat it during the third year, when they are miles ahead of the 1st year, having been to Boston. So I get them to help out with the teaching.

We have about 10% fail every year based on attendance alone.

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