Letting Go & Taking Control: Re-Takes

I have to admit, I’ve played with the idea of retakes for years, trying all variations. But it wasn’t until our Capital District NYS Master Teacher Program invited Rick Wormeli to speak a few years ago, that I fully embraced and developed my version of retakes.

I won’t lie. Going into that September I was fairly apprehensive. What was I getting into? Would I be inundated with work? Would the kids take just slack off on the first try at an assessment? Would it even make a difference?

Here’s what happened.


The most common criticism I’ve heard of the retake process is that it makes the kids “soft” and isn’t preparing them for the real world.  Let’s get this out of the way now. That is categorically false. Compared to the students who score poorly, shrug and think “Maybe I’ll do better on the next topic” or worse “That sucked. I am really stupid” I’d argue students engaging in retakes are doing MORE work on the topic. That’s not soft.  And unless your real world is different than mine, retakes are a HUGE part of the real life, right? You can retake your SATs, Regents Exams, Drivers Test, Pilot’s Licence, CSTs, LAST, Bar Exam, MCATS, National Board Certification, and school pictures. People can break off relationships and try again with someone new, play a course another time for a lower score, erase their crossword, try a different parenting technique to help their kids. The list is almost endless.

I mean, are there things you can’t do over? For sure. Like if you forget to feed your goldfish and it dies… well, game over. But I’m not sure letting a student retake my Water & Climate Exam was the determining factor in that life lesson. Just saying.

Another concern about accountability goes something like this: “Students need to be responsible by the time they get to Earth Science. Retakes might work in Middle School but not at this level.” Again, I just don’t think that’s true. If this strategy can be used in some undergrad and graduate classes, why wouldn’t it work in high school? Especially when the outcome is a better understanding of the material, improved short-term and long-term performance, and greater student buy-in.

I want to make something clear, though. My students don’t just show up for a retake any old time. My process requires them to:

  • Complete a Google Form where they reflect on the assessment and how they prepared. Now, if they blow off the reflection, I just let them know it is unacceptable. They can redo (ha, get the theme?) the reflection or they cannot do the retake. It only needs to happen once before they catch on that you take this seriously.
  • Have their parent or guardian contact me via phone or email (and this is a fantastic way to get parent email info as well as establishing positive contact!). The parent or guardian must state the original score and that their child has been preparing for the retake. I provide them with a template/script for this. Learn from my experience here. This is SO much better than having parents sign the test… because you just KNOW Dan is in the stairwell forging signatures for $5 a pop. Or if the parent sends the email without stating the score it was entirely possibly Audrey changed her 59 to an 89 with a swipe of the pen. This helps keep everyone honest.
  • Complete a review activity. Typically, I will have most students complete another practice test online and then, if needed, come to review that again with me.


Developing a system I deemed fair to all students was one of my biggest hurdles. I tried all permutations: Retakes only in extenuating circumstances, retakes for students who didn’t pass (with a maximum grade of 65% on the retake), retakes for students not achieving mastery (with a maximum grade of 85% on the retake). I always had that niggling suspicion that none of this was quite fair.

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Here’s where I let go.

I decided ANY student can retake ANY assessment for FULL* credit. 


I didn’t want this practice to be unfair to my highest achieving students. For example, Logan scored 85% on the first assessment, and Katie scored a 60%. Katie completed a retake and scored 88%… three points higher than Logan. Is that fair? Well, yeah.  It is. All students can take retakes so Logan has the same opportunity to retake and raise his score as Katie.


If you’ve ever had a student who was “mathematically out” in December you are aware of the struggles that are part and parcel of that situation. Retakes keep your kids in the game. They are not mathematically out.

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Further, to go back to Logan and Katie’s situation, Katie is continuing to work to improve because there is HOPE. Logan can continue to work, realizing that he can always do better. Although we don’t share grades between students, they do talk amongst themselves and this becomes a bit of a competition. As a former college athlete, varsity coach, and mom of three little athletes, I am a BIG believer that a little competition can raise the bar and stir up that extra motivation to do better.


Based on what we know from retrieval practice studies, the more times a student practices the material, through self-tests or actual tests, the more likely that information is to “stick”. As I’ve written in previous posts on summary sheets and my upcoming post on assessment, I like to play the long game. Do I want to see my students succeed on this one assessment? Absolutely. But I also realize this one assessment is just a building block in our year; their end game is a deep and lasting understanding of the curriculum and success on their Regents Exam.

Now, some might argue Katie hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the first test. Maybe that is true. Or maybe Katie just needed more time to master the material. Maybe she’d had an argument with a friend or was anxious about her first varsity start later that evening. I might not know and the fact is I don’t need to know. I’m not assessing Katie on whether she was prepared or took my class seriously. I’m assessing her on the content and if she shows she has a stronger grasp of the material on the retake, then she deserves that score.


So, this does take a bit of organization, especially when you are first starting. I love using my Google Form to track who is doing retakes and when. That’s huge. The other aspect that has made this easier is my test design. Similar to our Regents Exams, I break my assessments into a multiple choice section and CRQ (Constructed Response Questions) sections. Each is scored separately and this allows me to better track student strengths, weaknesses, and progress. My students can choose to retake either or both sections, but most choose multiple choice. I use TestWizard software to create my exams, selecting Regents Questions from the last few years. It only takes a few minutes to select another sampling of questions and push that out to the students. This software grades the multiple choice section for you so that saves a ton of time.

To be honest, the workload is very manageable. In fact, if anything, I am surprised by the number of students who do not initially choose to complete retakes. This leads to our last section.


Ever receive an email from a parent who is mystified/concerned about their child’s grade? I have. Allowing retakes resolves these conversations pretty quickly. They now go something like this:

Parent: I just saw Patrick has a 62% in Earth Science! Can he do bonus** work to improve his grade?

Me: So… I don’t offer bonus work for credit but let’s see: Patrick scored 60% on our last unit test and a 68% on a quiz. I’m looking at our Google Form and it appears he hasn’t requested a retake on either of these. That’s where I would start.

Parent: Wait. WHAT?! He can do a retake?

Me: Yes. For full credit. The new grade totally replaces the old grade. I hope he considers doing a retake.

Parent: Oh, he definitely will be doing that. I’ll talk to him when he gets home. Thank you.

Me: No, thank you! I appreciate your email and your concern about his progress in our class. Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns.

Boom. Done. The conversation is positive, there is an actionable plan, and the accountability for success has been effectively transferred back to the student. 

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If you haven’t been considering retakes, this is a lot to wrap your head around. I get it. And I am a big believer in using strategies that work for you in your classroom because kids recognize an imposter faster than anything. We need to believe in what we are doing. So think this over, maybe read this article by Rick Wormeli and see how it works in another class.  Then, when you are ready, take this idea and make it your own!

Moral of the story: When we let go of our strict views on assessment (views we lived and learned in our own education and training) and embrace the idea of retakes, we actually gain more control of our students’ learning and they gain more agency in the process. It is a win-win.

Thanks for reading along. Let me know what you think.


*Full Credit. You bet. Go big or go home.  I tried other percentages but they are arbitrary at best. If a student demonstrates mastery of 90% of the material, it would be unfair to record a lesser percentage.

**Bonus work. Yeah, I don’t believe in this. No sense in bonus work when you are struggling to master the work we are currently doing. Don’t get me wrong. I would LOVE to see kids going above and beyond to learn more about the topics in our class. I encourage it. But it has to be intrinsic.

Assessment as Opportunity (Summary Sheets Part 2)

Using your summary sheet on an exam? I know, I know, it is a big leap… One I still have to explain (read: justify) on the regular. But stick with me for a bit. 

If we’d had this discussion in 2012, I would have told you assessment is what comes at the end of a learning sequence. That pedagogical place where I sit with red pen in hand (I say that symbolically… I prefer green or purple, myself) assessing work and determining scores. Maybe we did corrections after but that was kind of it, you know? We’d end that unit of study and move on to the next. Full disclosure: did we continue to embed prior material throughout the year? Yes. Did some of the material serve as a foundation for the next unit? Yes. But my point is that the final assessment at the end of the unit was IT. Like you did well on the Space Science Unit or you didn’t and hopefully, we’d circled back to redress it during the year when we could so you would be successful on that topic on the Regents.

Image result for learning cycle teach learn assess
Courtesy of EdSurge

That was then. Over the last several years, I’ve undergone something of a metamorphosis in how I view teaching, learning, and assessment in my classroom.  In this case, I underwent a shift from being locked into a teach and assesses pattern to a more holistic view of the learning process.  I had to ask myself: what was the goal of my assessment? Traditional me would have told you it was to measure what the students knew about a particular topic at that time and assign a score. New me thinks the assessment is another opportunity for students to apply what they have learned and deepen their understanding. In other words, I began playing the long-game as I embraced the fact that my assessments were actually PART of the learning process and not the END of it.  

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Courtesy of Penn State

This idea of what many would call cheating originated with a conversation I had with a student. It had been our practice to annotate our New York State Reference Tables with additional clarifying notes. For example, I would have my students write in “recent, organic” next to Carbon-14 on page 1, “4.6 billion” next to 4600 million on page 8, the list goes on. We would use this annotated ‘Class Copy’ of the Reference Tables during our lessons and labs, and then I’d provide my students with a ‘Clean Copy’ for the assessment. So anyway, I was having a chat with some of the kids after an exam a few years ago and one of my girls said, “Yeah, it was like I didn’t even need the Class Copy for the test. I could just SEE the notes! It felt like cheating!”

Mind. Blown. 

Think about it.  We’ve all experienced this: If you see something often enough, isn’t it easier to picture in your mind? For example, a golfer can recall the fifth hole of their home course in vivid detail compared to someone who has only played it once or twice. A school bus driver can recall the color and style of each house along with their route when compared to someone whose purpose is less specific (driving to work). Both of these examples relate to how we transfer information and images from our working memory to our long-term memory. Repetition and elaboration influence this.

In this case, the students became so accustomed to seeing and using our additional information, they were able to recall it even when it wasn’t there.

This led me to consider whether using our summary sheets during the actual assessment might lead to lower test anxiety, greater perseverance, improved retention of material, and long-term success with the content. In doing so I considered three factors:

  1. When faced with a difficult question, would a student be less likely to give up on it if they had access to information that would provide a foundation for answering the question? I hypothesized they would be less likely to give up.  
  2. Would applying the information in a test setting make them more likely to retain and be able to retrieve the information in the future? Based on my reading of the Psychology of Errors in the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, I hypothesized if the students were not giving up, and attempting to answer the question, the information would stay with them, even if it was wrong initially. They key was to get them to commit to the answer.
  3. The assessment must be structured so the information would help students answer questions, not necessarily answer the questions.

As we neared the end of our next unit and began the process of creating summary sheets, I told my students they could use their new sheet on that exam. Let me tell you, these were some of the BEST, most comprehensive, organized, and detailed sheets my kids ever produced! But here’s the funny thing, when the assessment was over, a fair number of my students were disappointed. I was met with multiple comments like, “I put all that work into my summary sheet and I hardly used it!” Cue the students’ pouty faces and my celly.

cropped-screen-shot-2018-05-29-at-10-35-42-pm1.pngBoom! What??

So what happened? Why did so many of my students not use the summary sheet very much on the exam? Well, through the process of creating the summary sheet (organizing, prioritizing and chunking information, connecting ideas, constructing graphs and diagrams, thinking about their thinking) my students were able to transfer their learning into long-term memory and make their learning “stick”!

The creation of the summary sheet itself was an act of learning and using the information on the assessment further embedded the ideas through their application.

Over the course of the year, this is what I found:

  • Students stated they felt more confident and less anxious leading up to and during exams when they could use the summary sheet. Call it the security blanket effect.
  • Fewer questions were left blank. This told me the students were not giving up so easily.
  • More students demonstrated proficiency or mastery on assessments. This told me students had either learned the information better going into the exam or through the use of the sheet during the exam.
  • Further, more students demonstrated proficiency or mastery on exams where they could not use the summary sheets (benchmarks, mid-term and Regents).


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Categories in the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Ansderson & Krathwohl, 2001)


Naturally, I have encountered a few questions. The most common being “What if the answer to a question is right on the summary sheet? Where is the thinking there?” It’s a valid question. I believe you counter this by using or constructing questions that require higher order thinking skills.



However, students will be required to answer some questions that are factual (or using Bloom’s Taxonomy, “Remembering”). Here’s an example:

                  From NYS Regents                                          From a student summary sheet 


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Personally, I don’t have a problem with this and here’s why: The student either A) already knew the information B) Didn’t know the information or C) Used TTS to eliminate choices and increase the odds of a correct answer. Let’s say it is B. Here, the student could either guess or give up. The summary sheet provides motivation to not give up. And to be honest? I would rather have my student find and solidify that correct information here and increase the chances of it becoming long-term than have them give up and not think about it at all…or again. It is playing the long-game. And I guess this is the heart of my shift:

When I moved from viewing assessment as the endpoint to using assessment as deliberate practice student outcomes improved. 

Assessment at the end of a learning cycle should not signify the end of learning on that topic. When we view the assessment as another opportunity to enhance, embed, and continue the learning we open up opportunities for our students.

Thanks for reading through this long post. I look forward to your comments and questions! Even if you never change a thing and think I am completely wrong, maybe this post made you stop for a moment and examine your own practice. I am a believer that having a deep and clear understanding of why we do what we do in our classrooms and being able to articulate that is paramount for reflective practitioners. I look forward to continuing this conversation in my next post called Letting Go & Taking Control: Re-Takes. 

Some reading that influenced this post:
  1. Picture Memory Improves with Longer On Time and Off Time, Tversky & Sherman, 1975
  2. The Effects of Exposure Time on Memory of Display Advertisements, Goldstein, McAfee, Suri, 2011
  3. Expectancy of an open-book test decreases performance on a delayed closed-book test Pooja K. Agarwal and Henry L. Roediger III
  4. Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it Stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
  5. Boser, Ulrich (2017). Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, Or, How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything. Rodale Books

Brain Dump, Now What? (Summary Sheets Part 1)

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Summary Sheets and Assessment.

Have you ever provided students with a partially completed (or completed) review guide prior to an assessment? Maybe a series of facts or questions they should be prepared to answer? Perhaps played review games or even offered a practice test prior to the assessment? We’ve all been there. We’ve all struggled with the best way to help our students prepare for summative assessments. 

That’s where I was until I read Make It Stick* and Fair Isn’t Always Equal in 2016. Not to say I still don’t run mental marathons considering ways to help my kids be more successful but, together, these books profoundly altered my views on teaching, learning, and assessment and my students have met with more success.

As a visual learner, I was struck by pages 208 & 231 in Make It Stick. Here, the authors describe how Mary Pat Wenderoth, a biology professor, had her students turn in a single sheet illustrating the learning from the previous week. Through the use of diagrams, phrases, and graphs, (think sketchnotes) these summaries allow her students to prioritize information and make connections. This made me consider how I might use a similar process to review for assessments. 

Over the last few years, I have expanded on this idea and refined my process for using summary sheets as a tool to review for assessment. Here’s what I do: 

Step 1Word vomit Students are given 10-15 minutes to complete Brain Dump activity. Using just the front side of a piece of paper, they are instructed to write down everything (charts, diagrams, phrases, equations, pictures) they can recall about a topic, in no particular order, without using any of their resources. After the time is up, students should compare their brain dump with a partner, adding missing information or correcting their initial work if necessary.  If time permits, you can snowball this or, as I’ve ineloquently called this in the past: think-pair-pair-share. Note: There can be a little productive struggle in this. Some students might state they are done after just a few minutes. Allow them time to think. If they seem to be on the cusp of giving up, you might ask questions like “do you recall what we did the day we had the fire drill last week” or “what were we exploring the day we used the whiteboards, the light, and the hemispheres?” This type of questioning will help remind students about the lessons without giving away the important information we want them to come up with on their own. 

Step 2: Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know Using the sheet from Step 1, students complete a practice assessment typically consisting of 30 multiple choice questions which cover the scope of the content being assessed. As students complete the assessment questions, they should confirm and identify information that would help them answer the questions posed and continue to add to or modify the information they’ve compiled on the front side of the paper. I let students use any reference materials during this process to ensure the information is accurate and accessible. TestWizard software is useful because it provides immediate feedback, allowing students to check their information for accuracy and identify gaps. Last year, I started having students complete this activity in pairs. I’ve found this provides an opportunity for dialogue and has enhanced the process for most students. Note: Occasionally constructed response questions (CRQs) are included in this practice exam, but these are generally practiced during class. If carefully selected, the multiple choice questions will cover the content and processes being assessed and therefore will suffice for this activity. 

Step 3: Synthesis At this point, the students should have a fair idea of the content and required skills they will encounter on this assessment as well as a comprehensive list of the information necessary to achieve success. I provide students with a piece of colored, 8×11, card stock paper to complete their final draft of the summary sheet. During a single 40 minute class period, students will organize or “chunk” their information to show relationships between and among the concepts and facts, ensuring they include appropriate equations, images, and examples to support their understanding. They may use both sides of the paper and again can access all class resources including the practice test. To assess the summary sheets, I use the single point rubric below.  Hint: I use a different color paper for each of our 7 major assessments. We keep the summary sheets in a folder and return them as students begin to review for the Regents Exam. Presto… color-coded review! Click the image  below to access the complete document.
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Since starting this process, my students report feeling more confident going into assessments and they have met with greater success. In my next post on summary sheets, I will share how I’ve integrated the sheets directly with the assessment.

In the meantime, I hope maybe I’ve encouraged one or two of you out in the nether nether of Internetlandia to consider this strategy to help your students prepare for assessment.  I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment, Tweet , or email me about your experiences with summary sheets and whether or not you observe any impact on retention.

*Credit where credit is due: I selected Make it Stick as one of the 5 books for our NYS Master Teacher (Capital Region) 2016-2017 Book Study PLT based on a recommendation by Tom Shiland. Tom is a NYS Master Teacher and widely regarded as the Clint Eastwood of Chemistry.


The End of the Exit Ticket

Don’t get me wrong: exit tickets can help students summarize or apply their learning from a class, and honest data can inform your planning for the next day, indicating which students understood the material and which you might target for intervention because they need more time. Some teachers are masters of the exit ticket and use them with great proficiency.

But not me. Confession time: I’m not a big fan of exit tickets.

Maybe it is just the name that irks me. I mean seriously, do high school students need a ticket to exit the room? I feel like the name puts up walls and just challenges our more defensive students to say I’m leaving with or without your cutely-designed, well-thought-out little ticket. Further, when asking students to rate their confidence on the question posed or the lesson in general you can bet your new LeBron’s there are students who will say they are more confident than they are because….. hmmm, let’s see: they don’t want more practice because they are already struggling and that feeling of discomfort is, well, uncomfortable. Also, many of our incoming students aren’t accustomed to classrooms that focus on growth over assessment. They don’t see “not there yet” as a step on the ladder.

But I digress.

What I am really a fan of is seeing what my students know at the start of class the next day… or several days later. Or longer.  This method is consistent with many of the retrieval practice approaches outlined in Make It Stick, Learn Better, MastermindDepending on the topic and where my class is in the unit, there are several strategies I would employ in my anti-exit ticket strategy.  Whether you want to check in on what your students recall from the lesson yesterday, or last week or last September…..here are a few strategies you might try.

  1. 3 Facts Students list 3 facts from the lesson/topic. Once you check all students have completed the task, have them combine their responses in a shared Doc (or poster paper, or paper, or the chalkboard. Hey, we’re teachers we can figure it out!). Later in the day, other classes can compare their fact sheets to those created by earlier classes.  Did they miss anything? What would they add/change?
  2. Problem Solvers Pose a question from the lesson yesterday that requires students to apply the information to synthesize a response. Use a whiteboard (No whiteboard? Use chalk on a lab table or a piece of paper) to show your solution and explain your reasoning.  Twist: Jigsaw this! Let’s say you have six table groups of four. Pose 4 problems. Each member of the group goes to the question number table to work on the problem then reports back to the group. Keep everyone accountable: Tell the students you will take one completed problem set from each table and you will choose….. randomly!
  3. Question Set Choose 5-10 multiple choice questions.. preferably a combination of old material and new. I like to use TestWizard for this purpose. Depending on your goals, you can have the students work independently or in groups. Frequently, I will put them in groups for this. If you keep in mind that the goal is to learn and not evaluate at this point, group discussions about relevant questions can help learning!
  4. Edpuzzle Find a video that relates to your topic and embed questions requiring students to apply what they learned. Also… if I had to kick it old school with an exit ticket, this would be my go-to option.
  5. Brain Dump  On a whiteboard, Google Slide, or plain old piece of paper, write down everything you can recall from the lesson/topic….without looking at any materials. Words, phrases, diagrams, models….. it’s all good. Literally just have them purge their memories. Allow about 3 minutes for this. Then have the students combine compare with a partner. If you’re feeling ambitious or the students are struggling, you may want to have the partner groups share with another partner group. We call this think-pair-pair-share but I’m sure there’s a catchier name out there somewhere (feel free to comment on it, show-offs).
  6. Summary Sheets Similar to the brain dump and the facts, this requires about 5 minutes for students to sketch out a summary of what they learned. Equations, diagrams, and models are at a premium here.
  7. Create a Question Have students create a multiple choice question using the material from the previous class. Blake Harvard at The Effortful Educator provides an excellent template for this in his blog post, Maximizing the Effectiveness of Multiple Choice Qs. This method doesn’t merely ask the student to pose a question and come up with the correct answer. This strategy engages students with the incorrect choices as well, asking them to consider which incorrect choice was the trickiest and why, write a new question where the incorrect choice is now correct, and relate an incorrect choice to a previous unit of study or lesson. When the students have created their question and analyzed their choices, they can exchange with another student, complete their question and then compare answers. In this case, students are reexposed to multiple topics just through two questions. Check out my activity here.

And of course, all of these can be modified to keep it interesting for your students. For example, turn answering questions into a Grudge Ball game. Turn your 3 Facts into charades or Pictionary. Use FlipGrid or SeeSaw instead of a shared Doc. Have students make a 3-minute screencast about the lesson instead of a summary sheet. Kids need variation, so think of this as like a P90X approach to teaching. Mix it up, build skills, keep it interesting. This all depends on having teachers who can adapt to the needs of their students. Sometimes you need to take the metaphorical temperature of the class and have the intestinal fortitude to say hmmm, well I planned to do this as a Google Doc but today seems like more of a Pictionary day. Teachers, this means you may need to step outside of your carefully crafted plans and just respond to the needs of your students at that time. (And, oh, I am so eagerly awaiting the opportunity to post my thoughts about lesson planning!).

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Why wait until the next day for this anti-exit ticket? Three reasons.

  1. We don’t want students just to regurgitate information at the end of a lesson. Let’s face it: some kids have excellent short-term memories but they don’t understand a lick of what they are saying.
  2. Some of our students need more time to process the information, link it to their prior learning or experience, and build those connections within their brains.
  3. A lot can happen in 24 hours. I am much happier to see a kid “get it” the next day rather than the same day. This shows a greater likelihood of long-term retention. As discussed in Mastermind, our memories are like boxes in the attic. If we don’t take them out and dust them off periodically, they become lost in the clutter.

I hope maybe I’ve encouraged one or two of you out in the nether nether of Internetlandia to consider ditching the exit ticket and giving these strategies a try.  I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment, Tweet , Insta, or email me about your experiences with the end of the exit ticket and whether or not you observe any impact on retention.





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