UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Evolution: Rethinking Retakes

icon-2835450_1280During summer planning in 2016, while my colleague, Irene Witt, and I were thinking about changes we wanted to make for the 2016-2017 school year, we decided to bite the bullet and start doing some retakes.  We teach in a district with high academic expectations and we teach at a grade level where the math is leveled, so “messing” with grades has implications with parents and administration.  Irene and I had both taken classes with Dr. Katie Novak, our assistant superintendent, about implementing the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning.  In those classes, we had participated in discussions about the “one and done” approach to testing versus giving students multiple opportunities to redo their assessments (or to not do paper-and-pencil assessments at all, which is a blog for a different day).

Since we teach math, a subject that is highly method-driven (see this blog post about method versus content standards), and since the scores students generate in our classes impact their class placement in 8th grade, Irene and I decided to allow retakes on a limited basis, as follows:

  • Students could take retakes on Skill Assessments (unannounced quizzes on recent material) only.  Students cannot take retakes on Math Blasters (weekly announced review quizzes) or on Module Assessments (large, long-term, announced Unit Tests).
  • Students could take a retake if their original score was below a 70%.
  • The retake score would overwrite the original score (i.e., not be averaged), but only up to a 70%.
  • If a retake score was lower than the original, the original score would stand–we are looking to celebrate/build success.
  • The retake would closely mirror the original Skill Assessment, but would not be just the same Skill Assessment given again.  Question types and focus would remain the same, but images, numbers, etc. would change.

How did it work?

We tried the retakes for the 2016-2017 school year and liked it so much we raised the retake score to a 90% for the 2017-2018 school year.  Here are the things that we have observed that have convinced us of the value of this approach:

  • In general, students pay more attention to work that is graded.  Using the Skill Assessments for retakes allows us to walk a fine balance between holding students accountable with an on-demand measure of their current understanding and giving students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
  • We have seen a measurable improvement in the organization and clarity of students’ mathematical communication (i.e., using and writing geometric formulas to organize their algebraic solutions to geometry problems, beginning their work with the percent equation, etc.).  Rather than doing what I call “number vomit” where they splat values and an occasional variable on the page and hope I will sort it out (or give up), students are organizing their work in a way that clearly communicates their thinking.  Irene and I believe that this is due to the amount of feedback they are getting on their Skill Assessments, where we have an opportunity to ask them to revise and clarify their work on a lower-stakes assessment that mirrors the expectations for the Module Assessments.
  • On the emotional front, doing retakes gives students opportunities to experience failure in a moderately-high stakes setting, which allows them to learn how to fail, how to recover, and how to learn from that experience.  chalkboard-1927332_1920
  • As the teacher, I use the Skill Assessments to gauge where the class is at as a whole on a given topic and also to identify students who need individualized support from me.  The retakes both catch errors early on (i.e., thinking that division with negatives gets turned into multiplication like add the opposite does with subtraction) AND gives me a way to measure if a reteach has “stuck” with students–since I always wait at least a day to give a retake, I have some confidence in using the retake to measure retention.  The retakes also give me an opportunity to catch students who, even after a reteach, are still shaky on a concept so I can work with them before the high-stakes Module Assessment.
  • One thing that I didn’t anticipate was that using retakes allows me to track growth, especially when reporting out for students on educational plans (i.e., 504 plans, IEPs).  Even when grades for those students are lower overall, I can now track growth in scores between the original Skill Assessment and the retake.  The retakes also allow me to make statements about whether students can be successful with additional time/opportunities to practice, which has implications for programming.


three-dimensional-shapes-37035_1280On the teacher side of things, we have found that offering retakes speeds up the grading process for us.  Since we know that students will be able to take a retake once they get below a 90%, we no longer have to pour over loads and loads of incorrect work trying to weigh if there is enough right work to merit some points, etc.  Instead, we can basically give students a blank slate to try the material again on the retake.  For example, I just graded a Skill Assessment on volume.  For the students who confused volume with surface area, found multiple “volumes” and added them together (the creativity is mind-boggling), and so on….I can just mark the problem incorrect, set up time to work with groups of students who made a similar error, and move on.  I don’t have to agonize on giving partial credit or trying to decide how many points to take off for such an egregious confusion.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but the retakes have streamlined the grading process.



3 thoughts on “Evolution: Rethinking Retakes

  1. I too am a fan of retakes and hence found myself agreeing with much of what you said in your article. That said, I do disagree with you when you suggest that if the retake score is lower than the original score, you will let the “original score stand–we are looking to celebrate/build success.” In my opinion, taking that step goes well beyond what UDL calls for. Regardless, I’m wondering. What do you think about teachers who only allow the students to retake a test if they present, on the day of the retake, a “retake room entry ticket”, with this ticket to describe in detail the specific things that a student did to get ready for the retake (amount of time spent studying, test corrections, etc.)


    1. Hello. Sorry for my delay in responding – I don’t always have the mental bandwidth to keep up with things right now!

      I never tried having students do a retake for a test, only quizzes, all of which built to the test. By the time students got to the test, which was designed to be heavily application-based, they had had many, many retakes and in-class work opportunities to build, check, and relearn skills. The test was a one-shot deal. With that said, I’m sure it would we worth a conversation with a colleague who might be interested in trying that practice for a year or two to see what results you get. We also did exam wrappers on almost all tests, so we incorporated some of the feedback aspect, for sure.

      And I can’t resist a response about the retakes….UDL challenges us as teachers to identify barriers and then to work to remove them and/or go around them. Almost daily, I find myself having to recalibrate my understanding of student experiences of stress and anxiety. This was true pre-COVID, but has only gotten worse. With that in mind, removing the barrier of anxiety associated with retakes if they had the potential to penalize the student strikes me as not only important then, but even more so now.


      1. Thea

        I’m wondering if you would be willing to provide me with your answer to the question below?

        *Do you believe that the call for UDL in AP is much ado about nothing?*

        I’m asking because I’ve written a 3-minute blog post entitled, UDL and the Call to Remove All Barriers to Learning in the AP Course Much ado about nothing? , and I would like to include what you have to say at the end of the post.

        This post starts off with:

        At my school‘s monthly UDL training, we have learned that UDL (aka Universal Design Learning) can best be defined as an educational framework that calls for the removal of barriers to learning.

        In other words, asserts our trainer, UDL calls for the creating of a curriculum that provides learners with various ways to

        – Acquire information and knowledge – Demonstrate what they know – Tap into learners’ interest

        This training has resulted in me asking myself (and at the same time wanting to ask all AP teachers) the following questions:

        My post then provides AP teachers with 25 questions that they might want to consider if/when they are contemplating the extent to which they have integrated UDL into their curriculum

        Thea, the fact is that the AP teachers at my school are not at all happy about the UDL training.

        – One of our better respected AP teachers at my school recently said that “UDL is for the benefit of the special ed. student and since there are no special education students in her class, the training, for her, is a waste of time. – Another AP teacher said, UDL simply asks, “how many different ways can I teach this info” and since I use reading, videos, projects, music, art, etc., I’m already doing UDL. Different types of assignments to show mastery, that’s all UDL is. – I’ve even heard, “You already are doing UDL if you practice SAQs, LEQs, and DBQs in an effort to familiarize the students with the rubrics, directions, expectations.

        The comments above also echo what I’ve hearing from AP teachers elsewhere.

        If you would rather not get involved in all this, I totally understand. In that case, feel free to simply not respond.

        *Sidenote:* I’m also going to include in the post what appears below, just in from Michael C. Ralph.

        I think a call for increased application of the UDL framework in AP course design is needed as one of multiple steps that can remove barriers to participation in challenging coursework for students. UDL is built from a fundamental recognition that variability exists across all of humanity, and any group of learners will have a breadth of learning needs. Many classrooms stand to benefit from a greater variety of learning options and an increase in the affordance of autonomy to learners, and AP classrooms are no exception. I’ll emphasize that the UDL framework is something we apply within our pedagogy; we reconsider elements like our grading, our collaboration techniques, and our content creation through the UDL lens. From this standpoint, UDL is an opportunity to reconsider “how” we do our particular AP discipline, and I have found it pushes me to learn about making my instruction more accessible while simultaneously pushing me to expand my definition of what it means to “do science”.

        Michael is a former AP Biology teacher and AP Consultant, someone who “helped to create and consulted for the AP Insight program throughout its lifetime,” and the author of several pro-UDL articles found on the internet.

        Today, Michael describes himself as “a master teacher with the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Kansas.”

        On Sun, Nov 7, 2021 at 1:04 PM Universal Design for Learning wrote:

        > Thea Durling commented: “Hello. Sorry for my delay in responding – I don’t > always have the mental bandwidth to keep up with things right now! I never > tried having students do a retake for a test, only quizzes, all of which > built to the test. By the time students got to the tes” >


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