Revision is not a re-take.

“Can I re-take your test?” This is a question teachers at our school are currently considering. Should we allow students to re-take tests and quizzes so that they can demonstrate more learning and receive higher grades? I understand the plusses and minuses of these practices. Lately though, I’ve been hearing writing teachers, at our school and elsewhere, lump together re-taking tests and revising writing. Regardless of how we want to think about allowing (or even encouraging) students to re-take tests, writing teachers must insist that revisions are very different from re-taking tests. Revision is not a re-take.

When students re-take tests, they have additional opportunities to show that they have learned more. Most schools allowing test re-takes require that students show proof that they have somehow prepared for the re-take by conferring with the teacher, visiting a tutoring center, or doing extra homework problems. Theoretically, these additional experiences instill more knowledge in students’ brains, and the test re-take will generate a higher grade based on that learning. OK fine.

Revising a writing piece is a very different process. When we come back to a piece of writing, we are not seeking to show more knowledge; we are exploring how to improve our communication and enhance the way we affect our audience. When we revise, we are clarifying our own thoughts and seeking the best ways to frame them for others.

Although schools sometimes teach test-taking skills, these “skills” are not real-world tools. They are artificial, academic game strategies. Learning to re-take tests is an even more dubious expenditure of intellectual energy.

But learning to revise is an end in itself and a valuable life skill. The act of “re-visioning” means we see our writing (and possibly ourselves) in new ways, either because of feedback from other readers or simply because some time passes after the original drafting. As students learn to revise, they are engaging in acts of re-creation. Sometimes revision is an artistic process; sometimes it’s a rhetorical process. Sometimes it’s both, but it’s always a more sophisticated process than more thoroughly learning static content in order to re-take a test.

Writing teachers play an important role in helping students develop these revision abilities. As we help students see their own words through the eyes of someone else, we are deepening the ways they use words to express their perceptions. As Penny Kittle says in Write Beside Them, “I remember what my job is—not to produce a bunch of products but to help my students write their way to clarity.”

In order to revise effectively, students need to be encouraged to try again, to look for new and better ways to express particular ideas. If we simply say, “Too bad. You could have done all that the first time,” we are denying not just an academic opportunity but an opportunity for actual intellectual growth.

Revision is about growth. Revision is not about points, and it’s not about grades, although I understand that sometimes it needs to be converted into those kinds of systems. Regardless of what we think about re-taking tests, when students say, “Can I re-write this?” the answer should be “Yes.” Revision is not a re-take.

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