32

This question geared towards STEM but can definitely be expanded for courses in the arts as well.

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • A student has taken a course, but passed the course with barely a 60 over the 50 percent required to pass the course.

  • A student has taken and passed a course with a project component, but found that it would be beneficial to explore other topics if given another opportunity, in particular, using the expertise of the instructor and the resources provided in the course.

  • A student has taken and passed a course, but due to family issues/illness/personal issues/financial issues/job/internship, etc. the student takes a break of one or two years; when the student returns to school, he or she would like to take the course again as a refresher.

  • A student has taken and passed a course, however due to change of instructor, textbook, and other circumstances the course material was presented in radically different way, the student feels that the material presented has been inadequate or non-standard and would like to take the course again.

In each of these cases, from a student's perspective, I do not see why it makes pedagogical sense to prevent the student from taking the course again. The student could improve over his or her previous poor performance, explore alternative topics in a guided way, refresh his or her knowledge or be taught the material in a different way, perhaps by a more experienced instructor.

However, I suspect that most schools do not allow students to retake courses they have already passed, no matter how poorly the student performed, or how long ago the course was taken, etc.

My question is: what would be a sound reason for this?

From the school's perspective, one reason may be that the student would be at an unfair advantage over the other students. This reasoning however, assumes that there was some measure of fairness to begin with. It is difficult to claim this given the vastly different backgrounds the students have prior to enrolling in a particular course. Even then, the transcript would quickly reveal to a potential employer or an potential supervisor that a course was taken twice or several times. It can probably be said that a course that is passed with a high score/mark the first time is better than a repeated course.


Added:

Since the most common response to my question is: "But I was able to retake courses", please read some of the different policies for various schools and related discussions:

http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/aacc/academic-advising-faq, https://graduatecollegebulletin.ouhsc.edu/hbSections.aspx?ID=586, https://orapps.berkeley.edu/Registrar/courserep.html, http://artsandscience.usask.ca/undergraduate/handouts/RetakingCourses.pdf https://www.revscene.net/forums/572588-question-about-retaking-courses-limit-etc-ubc-sfu.html, http://calendar.ualberta.ca/content.php?catoid=6&navoid=857

  • 47
    "once a student has passed a university course, the student cannot take the course again" [citation needed] At my university it was possible to retake a course. First, you can always sit in every course you want. Second, you could even retake the exam. The last grade counted, though. So if you pass first time, fail second time, it would could as failed. – Mark Oct 19 '17 at 8:01
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    At my university there were classes you were encouraged to take more than once , even more so if there were very few students taking the class anyway. Those were mostly non-theoretical classes with a heavy focus on practising a certain skill. With other classes this was discouraged because too many students were trying to get a place in the class anyway and you would be "robbing" others of the opportunity to take the class. To me this seems like a good enough reason to limit the posibility of retaking certain classes. – NightrunningDeveloper Oct 19 '17 at 8:13
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    My experience was the same as Mark's: you can always retake any class, but the newest grade is the one that counts. – Ian Oct 19 '17 at 14:09
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    "I suspect that most schools do not allow students to retake course": Why do you suspect this? My experience is that institutions have a variety of different policies and restrictions on retaking courses, but I don't know of any where it is completely forbidden. – Nate Eldredge Oct 19 '17 at 14:13
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    @Nate I am fairly certain that it is impossible to retake a passed course in Denmark. And you only get three tries to pass it or you will be kicked out unless you can document circumstances allowing you to get dispensation. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 19 '17 at 15:12
16

Summary: this rule is about efficient allocation of resources.

In an ideal world, people would study whatever subjects they felt were useful or enjoyable for them to study, however many times and for as long as it took them to satisfy their curiosity and reach a level of mastery of the subject that they are happy with.

Sadly, we do not live in an ideal world. Two specific ways in which our world is not ideal are:

  1. In our world, education is a scarce, and very expensive, resource. At any university, there is only a finite number of classes that can be offered to a finite number of students, and the demand quite frequently exceeds the supply. This creates a pressure to strive for efficiency in various ways, and in particular to impose mechanisms that avoid a (relative) waste by teaching people things that they already know.

  2. In our world, education, and grades in particular, have very significant consequences for people’s future, greatly affecting one’s chances of getting a scholarship that enables them to stay in school, getting a good job, making money, and ultimately, having a good life.

    In some countries (the U.S. among them, in my opinion), this creates a very intense level of competition over what is already a scarce resource, and results in highly distorted incentives that cause students’ decisions regarding topics to study and how many times to study them to be motivated by highly non-ideal considerations having nothing to do with intellectual curiosity: e.g., it is very common to see students taking specific courses, or taking courses with a specific professor, or wanting to retake a course they did poorly in the first time, for a good grade. This exacerbates the scarcity problem I described above and results in even more waste and an even higher pressure to impose efficiency mechanisms.

The policy of preventing students from retaking courses they already passed is one obvious answer to these problems. I agree with your analysis and with the conclusion that it is not an ideal rule, since there are situations when a student might genuinely be interested in learning a topic better by retaking a course; but in a world with a finite amount of resources in which a student taking a course affects other students’ ability to take other courses, the rule makes some sense and does not sound so unreasonable in my opinion.

  • And sometimes the opposite happens. Anecdotal evidence, but I know of at least one school that is making people re-do most of an AS degree to qualify for a BAS track, even though they've been working in the field (networking and programming) for 15+ years. If I had graduated one term earlier I would be in the same boat... Not sure how this would affect financial aid since we are all employees of various other colleges that cover tuition as a benefit but ... – ivanivan Oct 21 '17 at 15:02
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In the United States, institutions that have such a rule do so primarily because of the requirement of satisfactory academic progress, or SAP, that is imposed by some, perhaps many, forms of financial aid. "Progress" means accruing the credit hours necessary to earn one's degree, and students who repeat courses for which they've already earned a satisfactory grade are not progressing (as fast) toward graduation. Students who do that more than a couple of times may have a high GPA, but unsatisfactory academic progress, and may lose their financial aid.

Edited to add: Sadly, and to me astonishingly and dismayingly, the subtleties of how financial aid works seem to escape many students. They overlook the SAP requirement entirely or decide they will somehow "catch up later." In the United States, it is difficult or impossible to have different rules for similar groups of people, so we generally can't have one rule for students with financial aid and another for those without. The result is that, even if it makes no difference to your financial situation, in many institutions you can't repeat a class in which you've earned a satisfactory grade.

  • 4
    It's the same in Germany. If you don't progress at least at 50% of the standard student's speed, you will loose governmental funding (called Bafoeg in Germany). – Dirk Oct 19 '17 at 11:41
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    Good answer. Also, in Wisconsin, the state universities (i.e., UW-System) will do a surcharge for undergrads with more than 165 to discourage career students. This rule was motivated by Johnny Lechner. – Richard Erickson Oct 19 '17 at 12:08
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    @RichardErickson thank you for the link, I now have a new life goal. – Jared Smith Oct 19 '17 at 17:59
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    @JaredSmith, that's exactly Fred Cassidy, the main character from Roger Zelazny's 1976 Doorways in the Sand. (The summary on Wikipedia is crap; skip it.) First couple chapters describe some of his methods of managing to avoid being graduated despite the University's best efforts. ;) (Then it gets down to more sci-fi stuff.) – Wildcard Oct 20 '17 at 7:25
  • @JaredSmith We're going to get our fingers spanked for going astray in the comments, but I really liked the "doodlehums." – Bob Brown Oct 21 '17 at 1:04
13

I don't think that students should be allowed to retake courses to get better grades. This motivates a lazy attitude from the start, saying "well, doesn't matter, I can simply retake it". However, students are supposed to do their best.
Apart from that, I see two points that might exclude someone from retaking a course:

  1. Spaces available. If the course is full, priority should be given to students taking it for the first time.
  2. Money available. Depending on the system in your university, you (or the government, your scholarship, etc.) either pay for each course or just a general fee. In the later case, the university would run into financial problems if too many students retook the course, as the available money (for TAs, material, etc.) is calculated with the number of people taking the course for the first time in mind.

However, I can understand why you would like to retake some courses and I think it is possible, as long as you pay attention to these two points. Discuss it with the professor in charge, point out that (if necessary), you will not participate in the final exam or not hand in homework, as to not take time from the TAs. From my experience, most professors don't mind if you just sit in the lecture and pay attention, as long as you don't cause more work and as long as spaces are available. But that depends on the professor and on the university in question, so you should ask directly.

  • 4
    the lazy attitude does not really work because in some universities the second grade is average with the first, so no matter how many times you retake the course never be able to reach a high grade if your first time you got a low grade – Herman Toothrot Oct 19 '17 at 10:56
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    @user4050 In that case it still works, just to a lesser degree. And only at those "some universities". So you can hardly say definitive "it does not really work". – Vladimir F Oct 19 '17 at 12:27
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    Eh. This rationale is flawed - a student can't improve, then? If the personal situation changes and the student is able to study more next time, to do better, he or she would have already wasted his "try"? That defeats the purpose of education, which is improving oneself. Studying isn't supposed to be a competition for grades. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '17 at 15:38
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    @T.Sar this, a hundred times. – Tobia Tesan Oct 19 '17 at 15:46
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    This also immensely privileges wealthier students. – Fomite Oct 19 '17 at 19:11
7

Not being able to repeat an exam if it was already passed can lead to the situation that a student is better off failing a test than passing it with the minimum passing grade.

In Germany I witnessed it several times that students tactically approached this issue. I saw students erasing or destroying their exam papers 10 minutes before the end to avoid passing. I also saw students walk out of oral exams because they judged their answers to be not good enough.

I think the main reason for this kind of policy is that you are obliged to allow students to retake failed exams and not obliged to allow students to retake passed exams. Therefore, most universities try to avoid the extra work that is caused by students sitting the same exam twice or even more often (there are exceptions, though, but at the one university where exams could be repeated as often as the student wants, a lot of lecturers complained about the workload).

  • 3
    I have witnessed students being asked after an oral exam whether or not they want a barely passing grade. – Carsten S Oct 19 '17 at 15:58
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    I had a professor once announce at the beginning of the final exam, "If you're not doing well in the course and want to fail so you can retake it, write 'Please give me an F' at the top of your exam paper." – ff524 Oct 19 '17 at 16:16
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    @alephzero Nope. That's a flawed assumption. There are several reasons for a student to have a lower grade that may very well be outside his control. When I took my first couse in Neural Nets, I was working 8am-to-6pm and having classes every night from 7pm to 11pm, including saturdays. Neural Nets was a hard course - I barely passed it. On the next semester, when I was with only two courses, I retook it - and got a stellar grade the second time, because now I actually had time to put into it. Just because I failed the first time, does it mean I shouldn't graduate? – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '17 at 18:50
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    @alephzero The university I graduated on Brazil - one of the best in IT in the country - had a very simple system: you can take any course any number of times you want, and when you're happy with your grades and finished all the mandatory credits you can grab your diploma. That meant that students felt it was worthwhile to try again and study more. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '17 at 18:59
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    @alephzero Let the student take the course how many times it needs to. If he never pass, he will never graduate, but if he gets better and eventually gets a good grade, well, then - the university did its job. "No, you failed once, go away" it's not a nice stance for a university to have. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '17 at 19:02
4

At my university, students are allowed to retake a class (there might be a limit on the number of times, though). One reason why this is allowed is that some programs have a required grade on a prerequisite, so a student may have passed the class but not be able to use it for his program. Another reason is that a student may be on probation for not having the required GPA, and getting a higher grade by re-taking a class may help them get out of the hole.

To avoid abuse, they are not permitted to retake a class once they have taken the "next one" in the program (i.e., you cannot retake Calculus I after you passed Calculus II). Also, only the last grade stands: I've seen students re-take a class and get a failing grade, and they were forced to take the class yet again.

4

In my College (Engineering) after you get graded you have a 20 days timeframe to sign the vote or refuse it. If you refuse it, you can take the course/exam again.

I once asked, out of curiosity, why this and the rationale provided was: "now that you are a senior wouldn't you love to go back and take again programming 101 just to get an easy A+?"

In the "neighboring college" (Economics) they are even stricter, if you take an exam and pass it there is no refusal, that is your mark, period. The reasoning there is "get used to the world of finace, here too many things must be perfect at first take..."

  • 1
    I don't understand the argument with the easy A+. It this resembles now my knowledge about the subject, why shouldn't it be in my transcript? Anybody reading the transcript could tell "they have the A+ -knowledge now, but they were not a quick learner (as the first time, they had a D)". Then they may interpret out of that what they want.. – Haudie Dec 25 '17 at 22:13
0

In my college (I was a professor) a student can retake a course for a better grade, they would have to pay tuition, but they can only receive hours credit for it ONE TIME. The second time around, it will not count toward being a full-time student (which demands completing 12 academic hours in Fall and Spring semesters, less in summer sessions).

Some scholarships, student loans and even paid internships require students to maintain full time status, so they would have to retake the course in addition to a full time load. Also some forms of educational financing may ONLY pay tuition for classes that earn academic hours, so they might have to pay the course tuition out of their own pocket.

On the other hand if they formally quit, withdrew, dropped or flunked, then they did NOT earn any academic hours, and taking it again would earn them academic hours, so their financing would likely pay for a retake.

Anyway, it is not prohibited in my college (American state college), selling seats in classrooms is the business we are in. We don't want students gaming the system to inflate their GPA or defraud their educational financing institution, that would deflate our reputation as a good school and perhaps lower our desirability to potential students and their parents.

  • Some financial aid systems/programs are limited to "attempting to earn X credits before getting a degree" for "standards of academic progress" purposes. Even if you've never been on FA before this can disqualify you from receiving it. Anecdotal evidence but that is the case with me - two AS degrees and an AA mean too many credits w/o earning a batchelor's degree so no FA for me... – ivanivan Oct 21 '17 at 15:06
0

I know someone who took a specific course again to get a better grade. Sometimes it is allowed, usually the average of the two grades would show on the GPA, but that is institution-dependent.

Of course, sometimes one can audit a course.

We had a course number that had rotating sequences of different topics, so of course, that was repeatable (but possibly confusing to people reading transcripts).

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