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Keeping the workload manageable for instructors and students
Learning doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time, and involves mistakes, feedback, reflection, and revision. This reassessment feedback loop is a critical part of learning, which is why it’s one of the four pillars that we’ve proposed for alternative grading systems.
But, reassessments are also one of the trickiest things to get right in a new grading system. A small change in reassessment policy can be the difference between a comfortable grading load and being completely buried under student work. For students, reassessments can be a time sink as well.
This week: How to keep yourself and your students out of trouble with reassessment workload.
This won’t be a general post all about reassessments. But before we get started, here’s a quick reminder about what reassessments are and why they matter. If a student doesn’t meet an objective (or specifications, etc.), a reassessment is another attempt to meet the same objective. Reassessments are the critical enabler of a feedback loop: they give students the chance to learn from their mistakes, and to show that they’ve successfully improved their understanding.
How exactly does this happen? There are two general approaches, with infinite variations:
New assessments: Students attempt to meet an objective by completing new problems that address the same objective. This can be done on a regular schedule (e.g. the next quiz or exam) or by request (e.g. during an office hour visit).
Revisions: Students revise and resubmit work for a new mark, usually with a reflection on their changed understanding.
Different approaches fit with different types of assessments. For example, large assignments that are graded holistically with specifications — like projects, essays, or proofs — benefit most from revision. Discrete objectives might be better assessed by a wholly new problem. In some classes, I find great value in having students reassess verbally during an office hour visit, using a whiteboard to solve a new problem on the fly.
In all cases, reassessments have no penalty. Whatever a student earns on a reassessment replaces their original attempt completely. If a student takes all semester to learn a new idea, and on the last day of class they show that they’ve learned it, then they should earn full credit. Learning takes time.
Thinking about student workload
One of the easiest mistakes to make when first adding reassessments to your class is to forget that reassessments are work for students. This might sound obvious, but so does this: “Revision improves metacognition and learning; I have assessments that would benefit from revisions; I’ll allow students to revise them.” Without other changes, that’s a recipe for frustrated, overworked students.
Reassessments in all forms take time. If you’re having students attempt new problems, that likely takes just as much time as the original assignment. For revisions, students have to get their minds wrapped around that particular assignment again, understand what they intended to do as well as what they actually did and use your feedback to understand why it needed revision. Only after all of that happens can they actually do the work to revise, edit, and resubmit.
So, think of reassessments as regular assignments in your class, and plan them in to your expected student workload. That might mean cutting out other assigned work to make space for them. As a rule of thumb, I think of reassessments as taking half of the time as the original assignment. This is an estimate: Not everyone needs to reassess every assignment.
For example, suppose you have weekly homework that you expect to take about 2 hours, and each one can be revised. To account for revisions, think of this as 3 hours of homework per week.
When planning a class, it’s always a good idea to estimate expected out-of-class workload for students. Just be sure to include reassessments as well and to make sure that number is reasonable!
A bit of an aside here: Even with careful workload planning, you may get complaints from students about the extra time involved in reassessments. This often happens because students aren’t used to having reassessments as an option, and so they feel like “extra” work regardless. If this happens, it can help to talk with students individually and help them make a regular reassessment plan. This makes reassessments feel more expected, and the concrete deadlines makes them more manageable.
Instructors: Avoiding the reassessment avalanche
Just like for your students, reassessments are extra work for you. At their base, reassessments represent more grading. In more involved reassessment systems — like office hour interviews — they can take up more time than the original assessments.
For instructors, reassessment policies are one of the most delicate parts of an assessment system. Seemingly insignificant changes can lead to huge differences in time and grading. With that in mind, here is some advice, especially aimed at anyone using reassessments for the first time:
Limit reassessment opportunities. The main way that reassessments can lead to pain is by overwhelming you with grading, so start with a limited reassessment policy. Some examples of sensible limits include:
Allow reassessments only on a pre-determined schedule. This works best with new attempts: Students may only try new problems on a subsequent quiz (or exam). Or, set aside dedicated “reassessment days” in which students can attempt reassessments, either in class or during office hours. This guarantees that you can predict when reattempts will need to be graded. This approach is a key part of “Mastery-Based Testing,” in which the reassessment feedback loop is focused entirely on quizzes or exams. The alternative is to allow students to request (or just do) reattempts on their own schedule. If you do that, be sure to read the next few items!
Use tokens to limit the total number of reassessments: Suppose you want to allow each student a total of 5 reassessments during the semester. Instructors often keep track of this with tokens1: Students start the semester with a limited number of (usually imaginary) tokens that can be exchanged for the right to revise an assignment. The artificial scarcity of tokens is a double-edged sword: It can encourage students to take reassessments very seriously, but it can unnecessarily limit students who would benefit from more opportunities.
Limit the number of reassessments that can be submitted at once: For example, students may only be able to submit one reassessed item per week. Or, students may be allowed to reassess up to three objectives between midterm exams, but only one each day.
Be more stringent than you think you should be — at first. I highly recommend setting more stringent limits than you expect you’ll need. Thinking about allowing one revision every week? Start students out with 5 tokens instead. What about the ability to revise every item on an exam once? Limit it to one item per week. In each case, see how it works for a few weeks. Students will undoubtedly ask for more reassessment opportunities, and if the workload has been reasonable, you can give out more tokens or make your policies more flexible as needed.
Another example of limits with flexibility: I used to allow students to revise two proofs per week (these are longer written assignments that are graded using specifications). This turned out to be too much to keep up with, so I changed the policy to allow one revision per week. However, now students can keep revising that proof multiple times within the same week, in case their first revision wasn’t successful. This gives flexibility where it’s needed, while keeping my total grading load lower.
Help students prepare well for reassessments. The best reassessments happen when students take time to really understand what misunderstanding they previously had, and work to correct that. Depending on your policies, some students could reassess with abandon, throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. This wastes time both for the student and for you, and doesn’t engage an effective feedback loop. Find ways to help students engage that feedback loop, which will then encourage better results and easier grading. For example:
Have students fill out a reflective cover sheet. Some example prompts: What did you do to improve your understanding before this revision? What resources did you use to study and prepare for this revision? What important mistakes were in the original, and how did you fix them? Or, have students fill in a sentence scaffold: “I made a mistake on ___. I did not understand ___. Now I know ___. To show my improved learning, I ___.”
If you have specific resources that students should use when revising, have them check a box on a cover sheet as a reminder: “[✔️] I reviewed the Professional Communication Checklist and ensured that I have met each of them before submitting this revision.”
In every case, be willing to return a reassessment that has an insufficiently completed cover sheet. Then, of course, allow students to revise and resubmit it!
Have students “unlock” new attempts via practice. Before attempting a new problem, require students to complete some concrete practice that is likely to help improve their understanding. For example, before students can attempt a new problem during office hours, they must complete three related problems from the corresponding textbook section. Have them bring their solutions to the office hour, and discuss them first. Or: When teaching Calculus, I’ve asked students to complete an online homework set, aligned with their revised objective, with a score of at least 95%2. In each case, it’s quick and easy to check that the work is correct; it helps review critical ideas; and helps students identify and fix misunderstandings. If a student is still struggling, an office hour meeting can seamlessly turn into a discussion of the student’s questions.
Expect changing reassessment loads throughout the semester. It’s likely that you will get few reassessments early in the semester, either because students aren’t used to thinking about reassessments (and forget to do them), or because earlier work may be easier (and less likely to need reassessment). This often happens even if you spend a lot of time encouraging students to reassess. There will come a time where students start to take this to heart: Be ready! You will probably see a significant uptick when the need for reassessments becomes more obvious. This often happens around midterm time, or after a major assignment is returned.
Keep it simple. Avoid the tendency to make complicated policies with many special cases. Here’s a real policy that I once tried to use, many years ago: Each item had to be revised within one week after I returned it, unless a student used a token, in which case they could then have an extra week to revise. Students could also use a token to delay the deadline for any assignment. This resulted in, at minimum, three different reassessment deadlines for every single assignment. The bookkeeping was a nightmare and nobody, myself included, ever really understood when reassessments were due.
Don’t give up!
Reassessments are a critical way to engage the learning feedback loop. They are one of the best things you can do to improve your assessments and fight the “one and done” mentality that traditional assessments encourage.
So, don’t be scared! By taking care when designing reassessment policies, you can gain the benefits while avoiding the danger of the reassessment avalanche.
Have some thoughts or questions about how to implement reassessments? Ask them in the comments below!
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Tokens are a form of “currency” that students can use to enable flexibility within a class. Linda Nilson in Specifications Grading especially encourages their use with, well, Specifications Grading! They typically have multiple uses, such as unlocking reassessments, delaying deadlines, or substituting for a missed assignment that was marked only for completion. Instructors often offer ways to earn more tokens by completing extension work that is relevant to the class.
The homework sets have unlimited attempts and don’t count towards a final grade in any way.