Second chances do have a downside

I saw a graphic on Twitter earlier this week that said something like:

“There is no downside to giving a student a second chance. Zero, zilch, nada.”

I scoffed and passed over it, but it kept nagging at me.

I went back to find it later, and of course I couldn’t. So you’ll just have to trust me that I’m remembering it right. (Next time, I will take a screenshot right away.)

You might be wondering why this irritated me at all. This post — like so much of what is on edu-Twitter — was just a generic, feel-good, bland, “let’s help kids” kind of thing. Nothing blatantly offensive.

And it doesn’t even go against my beliefs. For the most part, I agree with giving kids second chances. I’m on board with my school’s retake policy, and I think re-learning encourages a growth mindset. I’ve seen kids make tremendous progress when given the chance.

And yet…

This tweet is just one more example of education-world group-think that refuses to acknowledge nuance or trade-offs.

Let’s be honest here: Of course there are downsides to giving students second chances. There are downsides to everything. In econ, we call them “costs.” As in, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Here are a few of the obvious downsides to second chances:

#1 When students know they can always retake a test or redo a paper, they don’t have an incentive to try their hardest. I want my students to learn how to put their best foot forward, whether it’s on a paper, a test, a college app or a job interview.

#2 We want students to build good habits, like doing their best, asking questions, showing up on time every day. Relying on retakes is not a good habit for life (or college). I know you can retake the driver’s exam (a popular analogy) or the bar exam, but wouldn’t you rather save time and money and pass it the first time?

#3 Giving students second chances takes time. It takes time for me to write a new, equivalent assessment. It takes time for me to design meaningful re-learning activities. It takes time to provide the testing environment. It all takes time, and we never have enough time as it is, so something else has to give.

#4 Retakes cause stress. Last year, our school brought in outside experts to interview students, faculty and parents, so we could identify and address some of the major stressors in our culture. Guess what? One of them was retakes. Retakes create ambiguity and a feeling that nothing is ever over, and that actually causes kids anxiety. 

I’m not saying all of this because I oppose “giving a student a second chance.” On the contrary, I think the benefits outweigh the costs, especially if the policy is carefully designed, with incentives to encourage a growth mindset and real cognitive effort.

But I oppose false dichotomies. I oppose adopting policies without considering their unintended consequences. I oppose a mentality in education that refuses to honestly acknowledge drawbacks.

We do better by our students when we recognize that learning is complex, and that the incentives around managing student learning are similarly complex. Let’s push back when people try to simplify our work. Let’s admit our solutions are imperfect — and keep working to make them better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom