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?

  • 8
    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? – scaaahu Apr 26 '14 at 3:19
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    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 '14 at 3:51
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    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 '14 at 5:11
  • 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 '14 at 18:14
  • @chmullig: A variant I've often seen is that the lowest scoring one is worth 0%. – Nate Eldredge Apr 26 '14 at 21:37

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.

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