Zeroing in on Giving Zeroes: Why Punishing Students with Zeroes Doesn’t Work and What To Do Instead

By Adam J. Pearson

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In his February, 2008 article “Leading to Change /Effective Grading Practices” in Volume 65, Number 5 of Educational Leadership, ASDC, Douglas B. Reeves brilliantly draws attention to several “commonly used grading policies that are so ineffective, they can be labeled as toxic.” As a first example, he draws attention to “the use of zeroes for missing work.” Reeves writes:

 Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work (Guskey, 2000) and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale (Reeves, 2004), many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance. Defenders of the zero claim that students need to have consequences for flouting the teacher’s authority and failing to turn in work on time. They’re right, but the appropriate consequence is not a zero; it’s completing the work—before, during, or after school, during study periods, at “quiet tables” at lunch, or in other settings.

I fully agree with this analysis. Why is giving students a zero for not handing in an assignment a toxic practice? It’s toxic because it uses grades, which should only be symbolic of what students have learned and become able to do, as a punishment for behaviour. This inappropriate approach leads to inaccurate assessments of student learning. It literally distorts the picture of what students’ knowledge and competencies that parents, administrators, and the students themselves see when they look at their report cards.

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Often, when you express this idea to teachers, though, they have the same response:

“Okay, but there has to be some consequence for flouting the teacher’s authority and not doing their work!”

They have a point, but what exactly should that consequence be? Not getting a zero, but having to do the work. When I taught middle school and high school English, I often asked students to come in at lunch or after school to spend some time with me doing the work they hadn’t handed in. This way, I could tell them quite honestly that:

“Not doing the work is not an option. You have the power. You get to choose. You can either do the work here in class or you can do it at lunch time, but you’ll end up doing it either way. Why? Because I know you can and I want to see you get the credit you deserve for the learning you’ve done in this class. I want your marks to reflect what you know, not what you didn’t do.”

Because I followed through on what I said, they knew I meant it.

In the vast majority of cases, this practice worked very well. For one thing, it showed students that I cared enough to expect them to take responsibility for their learning and know that I would back them up and help them if they were struggling. This approach often worked really well with students who used to not hand in work in their other classes.

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Instead of a time-wasting ‘detention’ where students simply sit in a room staring at the ceiling and contemplating the video games they’re going to play when they get home, they’d have a work session with me at lunch and we’d get the work done together. The way to think about cases like this in my humble opinion is not “well, you insulted me by not doing the work, so I’m going to punish you with a zero!” There’s no room for revenge for the ego in education. Instead, a more helpful way to think about it is “how can we remove the obstacles to you doing the work so you can get it done?” That’s a far more empowering question to students that really pays off when put into practice.

The simple truth is that adversarial approaches only turn teachers and students into adversaries; cooperative approaches turn them into cooperators.

“What about students with Oppositional Defiance Disorder?” you might wonder.

In my experience, this cooperative approach works especially well with such students. Asserting authority and punishing them with zeroes only tends to push them away even more; relating to them respectfully and demonstrating your caring and willingness to help them can often win them over.

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