No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do


wootang5No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do

by Heather M. Stocker, TeachThought Intern

Many teachers see zeroes as punitive, but teaching 11th Grade English has taught me that the least motivational force on the planet is a zero. Though many teachers would chaff under the prospect of a zero, many students simply shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and say, “Whatev.” This can be very frustrating for teachers and parents, and worst of all doesn’t support the learning process. Which might suggest a new kind of no-zero policy.

Our first mistake is believing that students see zeroes the way we do, but students do not see them the way we do. As teachers we know that zeroes are bad for several reasons:

  1. Zeroes means nothing to most students and are not a motivator for improvement.

  2. They do not reflect the student’s ability or lack of ability.

  3. They can make a student’s grade tank quickly.

  4. A zero does not teach a life skill.

wootang6What is the Purpose of Grading?

When reevaluating your thoughts about zeroes, you have to get into the grit of grading. What is your purpose–assessment of skill level or assessment of behavior?

If you choose to assess skill level, then you need those zeroes gone in order to get an accurate view of what the student knows and doesn’t know.

If you’re assessing for behavior, then you can keep the zeroes, because they stand in for nothing other than a failure to work—a behavior.

Ultimately, our goal is to teach our content, but zeroes often teach something else as well: that it’s okay not to do the work. I have often heard students say, “It’s okay if I get a zero on that paper, I’ll make it up elsewhere in the grade.” Clearly this strategy has worked for them in the past. When I hear this, it’s time to sit down (again) and really discuss the purpose behind the assignment. I explain that zeroes are not an option and each one comes with a consequence.

Oftentimes, teachers say they are teaching students that they can’t be late on assignments, that in the real world, if you’re late with work you get fired. For better or for worse, school is nothing like the real world. School is certainly valuable for building work ethic and education to be used in the real world, but it is a false assumption to say it’s a real-world environment. no matter how authentic we try to make it. Ultimately, we need to let go of this concept in order to work with the reality we’ve been given and deal with zeroes with a more direct approach.

We’re also undermining kids’ ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when we allow them to get zeroes. By allowing zeroes, we’re giving them the message that they don’t have to be persistent in their learning.

We’re also telling kids the assignment wasn’t that important anyway—they can get a zero on it and no one can or will do anything about it.

Is that really the message we want to send?

And more importantly, how should we design no-zero policies in light of this–if we should at all?

Image attribution flickr user wootang5

  • Andrew Wilkins

    This is an interesting piece, but I do not like its ambiguity. I am hoping it’s purposeful to start a discussion. I understand for sure that there are students who are not motivated at all by a zero – but that’s just as sweeping a generality as what was stated in this post that students aren’t motivated by zeros – some actually are! I do want to find a way to make sense of this “no-zero” policy (because I ultimately like the IDEA of it), but here are my qualms:

    1) Given that zeros don’t do anything (I’ll argue this later) – how do you “not let a student get away with taking a zero”? Detention I guess, but then what? What do you do when they do nothing on a test? Have them re-take it? When – during class (they miss instruction) during detention? Would this teach them they don’t have to prepare the first time?

    2) Zeros are important in at the very least quizzes/tests/assessments. If a student literally cannot complete anything correctly on an assessment, why should they receive anything other than a zero? And again – if they do it over – what does that teach?

    I’ve had some teacher friends have a policy of students being able to re-do quizzes to allow for growth to occur and all students did is take advantage by doing poorly on the first one so they know the [types of] questions and then prepare really well before the second opportunity.

  • Howard Pitler

    I wrote a post on the McREL blog a while back about this very topic – The Devastating Power of Zero. I think it might be pertinent here as well.