Within my college, teachers generally allow any student who earned a D or lower on an exam, to retake the exam. While I do not need to follow this policy in my courses, many students expect their instructors to offer retakes.

I would like to offer retakes, but see two problems:

  • Setting a fixed cut off at a "D" seems unfair to students. If a student earns a single percentage point more than this, they cannot retake it, but the student who retakes it stands a chance to earn a full A.
  • Allowing all students to retake would create too much extra work for me. Some students who earned a 95% would still try to retake it to get 100%.

If there a fair method of allowing exam retakes that discourages every student from taking them?

  • 13
    How about allowing the students who earned a D to retake the exam and the best grade they can get for the retaken exam is C?
    – Nobody
    Apr 26, 2014 at 3:19
  • 10
    If you don't need to follow this policy, then my suggestion is don't follow it. If the student performed poorly on the exam, then they need to retake the course not the exam.
    – hesson
    Apr 26, 2014 at 3:51
  • 7
    I think the OP is referring to situations where there are multiple exams in the course. Plus, I disagree with the idea that a student who does badly on an exam needs to retake the whole course. The student may have had a bad day (sick, misread a question, or whatever).
    – aeismail
    Apr 26, 2014 at 5:11
  • 2
    One option, particularly if there are more than 3 exams in the course, is to automatically adjust the weighting of exams. Say there are 4 exams, each worth 20%. Adjust it so that for everyone, their lowest scoring exam is worth 10%, and the highest 30%.
    – chmullig
    Apr 26, 2014 at 18:14
  • 1
    @chmullig: A variant I've often seen is that the lowest scoring one is worth 0%. Apr 26, 2014 at 21:37

5 Answers 5


I think the easiest way to handle this is to allow anyone to take the exam again. However, the caveat is that the retake replaces the previous grade, whether or not it's a better grade. A student who got a very high grade (such as 95%) on the first exam is unlikely to retake an exam to gain five points, when there's every chance the grade could go down by taking the exam a second time.

What one other professor did in a similar situation was to make us choose between keeping the grade on the exam or taking the repeat exam before we saw the grade on the first exam. That is, you could either get your exam back and take that grade, or leave it sight unseen and take the second exam.


One common strategy is to let students split the difference: if they got a 60% on the first exam and an 80% on the second then the final grade would be 70. This can be combined with aeismail's advice, if you are so inclined.

Another option is to cap improvement: the scores that can be obtained on the second exam are bounded. This could be a maximum improvement (e.g. 10%), half the distance to 100%, or a course-wide threshold (say 80%). All of these options discourage people who already did well from taking the exam again, in some cases prohibiting them from doing so.


Follow your university's policy.

If your university has a policy on how to handle exams retakes, I would say that you should follow that policy. It will ensure fairness and consistency across the university, ensuring that students won't be especially advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of who is teaching a specific class. Additionally, by following the policy, you'll avoid disrupting whatever scheduling your university has developed by assuming that X% of students will wind up retaking the exam, by giving them significantly more or less exam-retaking students.

If you disagree with your university's exam retaking policy, I think the correct course of action would be to lobby the university administration to change it - or to work towards joining whatever committee is responsible for deciding it, so that you can express your opinions I'm that context.


Exam retakes are inherently unfair, and doubly so when the criteria for allowing them account for the amount of effort on your part.

There are different causes for the inherent unfairness, including at least:

  1. Exams are inherently unfair for various reasons - not the least of which being that some people do poorly on timed exams but are better able to exhibit command of the subject matter in other settings.

  2. People who are taking more courses or have to work to finance their studies have a lot less free time to prepare for an additional exam, so they are less likely to take it even with all other things being equal.

  3. It is not obviously the case that command of a subject matter (in general, or the subject matter of a course) is quantifiable. Hell, it's not obviously the case that the command of a subject matter is properly comparable among individuals.

  4. Retakes are an exception to the default uniform grading policy. Making exceptions is already problematic for those who relied on the uniform policy being applied.

... so if you're already making the exception that is retakes, and regardless of what retake policy you choose, be open-minded about making exceptions or changes so that your students feel they're not getting screwed.

  • 2
    Exams/Exam retakes are inherently unfair - I'm not convinced. E.g., it's true that exams measure something different than projects or papers, and written exams measure something different from oral exams. And people who have less time to prepare for an exam would also have less time to work on a project or any other assignment. What is true is that exams don't necessarily measure what you're trying to teach, but I would think that allowing makeups would help the people who aren't good at timed exams.
    – Kimball
    Aug 25, 2021 at 12:50
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    "be open-minded about making exceptions" Exceptions to the grading structure in the syllabus are a recipe for disaster. "You made an exception for Charlie, but you won't make one for me? I'm off to see the Dean!"
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 25, 2021 at 13:36
  • @BobBrown: Exam retakes are exceptions to the grading scheme. You could well argue for no retakes, period.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 25, 2021 at 13:59
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    @einpoklum Correct. If I were going to allow retakes, which I did not, the criteria would have been in the syllabus and would have applied to the entire class.
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 25, 2021 at 16:54

In my former institution, the policy on retakes was that if you retake the assessment(s) for a module then your mark on that module is capped at the minimum pass mark. So if you need 40% to pass, then even if you get a perfect score on the retake exam, your final mark will be 40%.

This means there is no detriment to students who passed with, say, 42% and who think they could do better if they took the exam again. They are not allowed to retake, but they could not get a higher mark from retaking anyway because their retake mark would be at most 40%.

That said, this is a policy which should exist at the institution-level. You should find out what your institution's policy on retakes is, and follow that policy.

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