The retry button: Statistically correct


So here’s the thing about ‘retry’ buttons; they’re completely pointless and really annoying for the learner. Every time that I see a ‘retry’ button appear when I have answered a learning check incorrectly, it makes me want to tear my hair out with frustration! It goes completely against the point of a learning check, or ‘formative assessment’ for those who want to get technical.

While the definitions vary a bit depending where you look, the ultimate goal of a learning check is to identify if a learner has a knowledge gap, and then help them gain that knowledge as needed.

Now fundamentally, the function of a retry button is to re-ask the learner a question.

The learner is presented with a question, they answer incorrectly and they get a neat little piece of feedback saying "That’s incorrect, please try again." At this point that probably doesn’t sound all that bad, but let's bring this concept 'to life', so to speak.

Imagine we’re in a classroom environment for a moment, perhaps a geography lesson and we are learning about the capital cities of the world.

Ms Smith: "Hope you’ve been listening Terry! Tell me, what is the capital of Brazil?"

Terry: "Err, Rio de Janeiro?"

Ms Smith: "That’s not right Terry, try again."

Terry: "Hmm, Lima”

Ms Smith: "That’s also not right Terry, try one more time"

Terry: "I really don’t know Ms…"

Ms Smith: "That’s OK Terry, have another guess anyway"

Terry: "... Mexico City?"

Rather awkward and ultimately unproductive overall, isn’t it?

This is effectively what we are asking of the learner when we present them with a learning check that has a retry button. If they’ve answered the question wrong the first time, we are asking them to guess or arrive at the answer through a process of elimination. Statistically they will eventually get it correct, but that’s not really achieving the desired outcome.

Some people will argue that having learning checks with retry functionality means that once the learner completes the eLearning, they will have demonstrated they have all the knowledge required to pass those learning checks. But really, this thinking is flawed as it assumed that the learner didn’t arrive at the answer by either guessing or a process of elimination

A learner getting something wrong is a golden opportunity for them to learn something new. This is why slowly, but surely, the retry button is dying off and is being replaced by meaningful content and follow up learning opportunities. Rather than asking the learner to guess and then guess again, serve them up some content that is relevant and will provide them with a positive learning experience.