Resitting exams does not necessarily improve students’ learning, according to research.
In his paper “Resitting or compensating a failed examination: does it affect subsequent results?”, Ivo Arnold, vice-dean of the Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam, found that the evidence for a “positive effect of resits” on learning was “weak at best”.
The study looked at the exam results of 4,805 students studying a bachelor’s degree in economics and business at Erasmus between 2007 and 2013. Of those, 3,042 had completed their first year and 1,696 had completed their first and second years.
Professor Arnold compared the relative merits of students resitting examinations in order to improve their grade with making up a low performance through other test results – an approach known as compensation – to see what effects they had on students’ later academic performance.
“The number of attempts that students need to complete their first year does not have a significant positive effect on second-year performance,” his paper concludes.
“While the effect of the resit treatment in general is positive, it is insignificantly different from zero in almost all specifications…Based on this result we cannot reject the hypothesis that doing a resit does not improve future academic results, compared to the case in which a failing grade is compensated.”
Although Professor Arnold said that he would not like to see resits abolished, he told Times Higher Education that in many cases the negative effects outweighed the positives. His paper states that there is a “darker side” of resits; specifically that “ample resit opportunities also offer students the opportunity to postpone their study effort”.
“If students know there’s just one possibility to perform they will work harder, that’s the assumption, than when they know they can redo the exam over and over,” he said.
“For many degrees, you have a lot of introductory courses and in that early phase, compensation may be better than requiring first-year students to resit and resit. It drags down the motivation and, eventually, they may just pass because of this easy resit [exam].”
If allowed through using the compensation method, students have proved that they “have the ability to do an academic qualification”, and “can go on to the next stage and show what they’re worth”.
“I’ve seen too many cases when students spend too many years in the same programme, having to do resits, and not progressing. It means that young people are misusing their time,” he said.
“If the system makes it clear at the start whether students have the potential to finish or not, then students will be directed to a programme that fits their talents more quickly, and hopefully then they can complete their studies more quickly and they can enter the labour market at a younger age.”