A student who earns a grade lower than he wished for a course has the opportunity to take the class again. This may alter the student’s final grade for that course, perhaps with the new grade taking the place of the previous grade, the higher grade standing as the final grade, or the two grades being averaged together. In any case, it is an opportunity for a student to put in more work for a favorable benefit. But how much extra work should be required? Say, for example, that a student performed well on the first test in the course, but very poorly on the second test. Should the student be required to take that first test again, even though he has already displayed mastery of that material? For writing assignments, should the student be able to turn in what he wrote from his previous attempt? Or should he have to write the assignments anew? From a testing perspective, this is a choice between demonstration of mastery and demonstration of retention.
Demonstration of mastery, if that is the instructor’s goal, should allow the student to repeat only those elements that he failed to show mastery of. Thus, if the student is retaking a course, he can complete only those tests and assignments he wishes, with old grades standing in for those elements he does not repeat. In other words, retaking the class is the student’s opportunity to fix a few past mistakes and earn a better grade.
This style makes retaking courses very appealing. Imagine, for example, that a student earns a lower grade than she wanted because her final paper was not well-written. She can get feedback from the instructor on that final paper, correct it, and then retake the course. She doesn’t need to take any tests again, attend any lectures, or participate in the class in any way. All she needs to do is hand in her corrected final paper to earn a higher grade.
Demonstration of retention, however, requires that a student repeat all work in a course because the student must show that, even if he learned the material once, he must retain the material over time. No amount of studying is required of the student, so if he learned the material for test one the first time he took the course and has retained it all, then he should be able to show up to that test without having prepared. In most cases, it is beneficial for the student to be actively engaged in the class, because he likely hasn’t retained all the material and attending lectures and studying will help him perform better, no matter the score he received the first time around.
Demonstrating retention makes retaking courses more onerous for the student, namely because of the risk of earning a lower score. Though the student’s initial performance may have shown her to have a high level of understanding, she needs to demonstrate that she retained that knowledge to improve her grade in the class.
For writing assignments, this idea of retention becomes more complicated. Certainly, for some writing assignments, retention is tested, but for most, the goal is to craft an argument or follow a set of procedures. Imagine an assignment in which students must read a research article and summarize it. No retention of course material is tested here; instead, the student is tested on her mastery of a skill. But retention of that skill is tested. Simply because the student could do the assignment once does not mean she can do it again. In this case, both mastery and retention are tested, and again, allowing the student to hand in an assignment she did previously is not appropriate.
In this way, we see that only mastery or only retention does not serve all goals for instructors crafting policy for course retakes. The students must demonstrate mastery of the knowledge in the course, but also their retention of that mastery; demonstrating knowledge once does not suffice. Students must also demonstrate retention of skills that they have previously mastered. Showing a skill once does not mean that student can show the skill after the course has ended. In any case, allowing the student to retake a course but only redo material she wants to improve on is not appropriate. A course retake means redoing all course elements if the student wants to earn a higher grade the second time around.