The Student Voice On Zeros

One of the many missing voices in the debate on zeros is from probably the biggest stakeholder of them all.  The students.

I opened up this conversation in my classroom and simply asked three questions.  I wrote down the response of the kids in an unedited format.  Whatever they said, I wrote down and then waited until the discussion to chime in with my thoughts.  So here’s what they said:

Question #1:  Why might a teacher choose to give zeros?

The students don’t work.

The student provides no effort.

Teacher doesn’t chase you for the assignment.   (To clarify: they were talking about teachers keeping the kids accountable for the work – but they are in Grade 8 so this was their language).

They are mean/strict.

Have high expectations. (Some clarified this by saying they might be too high.)

Want to motivate you to get it done.

Have personal issues with the student.

To punish you. (Ouch….it pained me to write this one down but it came straight from them!)

What about learning disabilities? (question raised by one student)

What about if I don’t know what I’m doing? (question raised by three students)

Question #2:  Why might a teacher choose not to give zeros?

They think you can do better.

They give second chances.

So it won’t lower your self esteem.

They believe all students give effort.

They want to give you a chance to do better.

They will chase kids. (Translation: keep them accountable.)

They don’t punish, they don’t take out personal issues on your grade.

The teacher helps with what the student missed.

Question #3:  Why might a student take/get a zero?

Didn’t have enough time to do it.

Didn’t want to do it.

Had too much to do after school.

Were lazy about it.

Gave up on it.

Didn’t know what to do.

Wasn’t there when it was assigned.

Knew I wasn’t going to do well on it anyways.

Had to get other things done first.

Feeling snowballed. (Translation:  Too much being asked of the student and not enough time to get it all done.)

The Discussion

Look at the language and the tone in what the kids said for questions 1 and 2.

I’ll admit that at the beginning the kids were very much in favour of giving out zeros to “lazy” kids but not to those with legitimate reasons why the assignment wasn’t done.  Then they began talking to each other and the students who will most likely be getting these zeros in highschool started to chime in.  They started to realize that it’s not to cut and dry and that there are extenuating circumstances in all of their lives.  They also started asking if it was ok to give out zeros some of the time but not all the time.  Then we got into a whole other conversation about what constitutes “fair” and “equal”.  Suddenly even my Grade 8’s realized there is no clear cut solution to this problem.

What hit me hard was the admission two students made to me in private when the discussion was over.  These kids said that they just don’t see the point of trying in certain classes because they feel like they aren’t cared for by their teacher.  Or even worse….that the teacher only cares for the academic students and will try for them, but not for the kids who are struggling.  And if the teacher doesn’t care about them, they don’t care about anything the teacher has assigned.  I seriously wanted to cry.  They quickly told me that they didn’t mean me (sweet kids).

Whether you give out zeros or not, I encourage you to have a conversation with your students about what the zero is really saying to them and how they are interpreting it.  I asked my kids: “Will zeros motivate some kids into getting the work done?”  Absolutely, said some.  Who then hesitantly added that they’d probably never have had the zero in the first place.  No way, answered others.  It depends, said a few, who then added that it depended on what the assignment was.

Bottom line: Will it work for the kids we need it to work for the most?  Probably not.  And I’m getting this straight from them.  This isn’t just me talking now, it’s my students.  Argue all you want but at the end of the day….as a teacher the only opinions that truly hold the most water with me are those of the kids that sit in front of me every single day for 6 hours.

I encourage you to read this post by a man I very deeply respect, Joe Bower.  He sums up very nicely what will happen if you do choose to give out a zero.

To those of you who will choose to comment on this post, please keep in mind that my students read my blog.  Be respectful of them.  Be critical, but not condescending.  Be thoughtful, and not thoughtless.  The fact that they were so open and honest with me when discussing this issue is an honor, and not one I take lightly.  Being a female teacher trying to get a 13 year old boy to open up isn’t easy.  And the ones that were the most candid with me were indeed the boys.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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7 Responses to The Student Voice On Zeros

  1. Reblogged this on Planning 2 Learn and commented:
    Just asking students can really tell us a lot…

  2. Scott says:

    Well done! I liked how you took into account the voice of your students and then engaged them in a discussion on the same topic after they had some time to think on it and give short opinions/responses to the questions you started with. The did a great job being honest and candid. I agree with you and them. I was/am the same way. I would still take a zero at times, even though they can kill.

  3. Fritzie says:

    I think it would be fair for your students to know more about the fiasco over zeros at Ross Shep. I am not a teacher there, but I know the school well, and especially know some of the science teachers involved well. They are the kind of teacher I would want for my kids. They teach the highest level science courses including IB . They love the subjects and teach enthusiastically. They care for and have empathy towards students. They do not want to punish kids with failing marks–rather they want to ensure that students practice solving problems to ensure that they have the best possible results in the course–and with most students they are successful. Their class marks are close to those achieved on the diploma exams. They have contact with people at the post secondary level and informally monitor how their students generally do as they move on. Some have taught for decades. Dorval was one of them.

    All of these teachers use a “zero that can disappear after the work is done” because this actually gets students to do the practice work. When faced with zeros most kids feel privileged to be given the opportunity to make up the work with no penalty. The housekeeping aspect of this method is easy because the students take the responsibility rather than having to be chased down for incompletes.

    These teachers tell us that most–or sometimes all–of their zero’s disappear before the end of the reporting period. While it is a hassle for teachers to mark work in bits and pieces, the teachers realize that the students often have legitimate reasons for not completing work by a specified time. Many of these students play sports, have jobs and are involved in other extracurricular activities. This practice of assigning “zeros that can disappear” actually supports the students in achieving their own goals. When they see those zeros on a handout of their marks so far, most of them make the missed work a priority.

    I would love to live in a world where marks don’t matter at all, but these students are competing to get into university, to get scholarships and to get into other programs. Ridiculous as it is, every mark counts.

    • Thank you for sharing that insight with me. To be fair, these are all individual comments they made. And we weren’t talking about the teacher giving out zeros at Ross Shep specifically, just teachers in general. They will be the first to admit that not all teachers who give zeroes are “mean”. But my students also say that giving them a zero doesn’t necessarily motivate them to hand in that assignment. So the question of thought I’d like to provoke is….what do we do about those kids? In my school only a small handful of students go on to post secondary. It’s the reality of the community where they come for. So what do we do about those kids who aren’t competing to get into post secondary?

      I’m a middle school teacher and my goal is to encourage students to learn for the sake of learning, not for the grade they will be getting. If I’m successful in this goal, this issue of zeros in high school should theoretically be a non-issuse. Since they should hopefully cease to exist…..theoretically…..

  4. Fritzie says:

    I am defending only the practices of those teachers in the classes mentioned. The students have long since been “addicted” to marks. Next year most of them will be in post secondary institutions where a late assignment might get a zero if it is not handed in at the beginning of the class.

    Personally I’m all about learning for passion. I unschooled my kids until high-school. We avoided all exams, quizzes, curriculum, formal evaluations etc. They did well! Then, because they wanted to be in school (not my idea) they jumped all the hoops and actually had no patience for the kids who didn’t.

    I realize that this is not possible in most families and therefor believe that your students are very lucky to have you.

  5. Joy Kirr says:

    Thank you for asking your students! School is out for me, or else I’d go in tomorrow and ask them, as well. I blogged about this a bit, too, earlier in the month (, based on a video about “Toxic Grading Practices” (link is in my post), and I, too, want student buy-in. I think I’ll be showing them the video, and then setting up a corner of the room for students to come in before, during, or after school to improve their grades, or work on a missing assignment. I want buy-in, but I want a system, too. Maybe the students can help me set that up. Thanks again, for asking your students and then sharing! @JoyKirr

  6. Rachel says:

    The case you make against a zero relies heavily upon assumptions. I have an open mind, but I cannot jump ship until I see relevant data supporting these assumptions. Here are a few of them:
    1. School is not like work; therefore, the school environment should not enforce responsibility the way the work environment does. (Who says? Where is the mounting peer-reviewed evidence in scholarly journals that supports this? We should all require that kind of evidence.)
    2. If a student receives a zero, it damages his/her self-esteem. Maybe so. Maybe not. Some people believe that never giving a zero reinforces irresponsibility. Whose opinion is right? In the end, opinions don’t count. Data does. Where is the data that reinforces any of these opinions? How many post-secondary institutions have adopted the “no zero” policy as a result of these revelations?
    3. Teachers give zeros (don’t students earn their own grades?), and unless the student didn’t learn anything, the zero is not justifiable. Again, who says?
    4. Parents are not ok with their own children receiving zeros (I am a parent and a secondary teacher, and if my child does not do the work, I am perfectly ok with my child learning that lesson.).
    5. Because giving a zero might not motivate a student to do the work, there is no point in assigning the zero, since it may not solve the motivation problem. (This is based upon the assumption that zeros are designed to sway students to perform tasks. What if they are simply numerical reflections of data? And if that is what they are, why can’t we explain that to students so they understand the value of the number?)
    6. Giving zeros reinforces some kind of “Henry Ford-esque” assembly line in education. I don’t buy it for one second. My students are taught to be critical thinkers. They are highly motivated. They know what I expect from them. They know they will earn a zero if they do not complete an assignment. I don’t remember the last time I had a failure. I do offer a window of time to make up assignments, and there is always a grey area where students, for one reason or another, couldn’t meet the requirement. I understand that life happens. The blog’s assumption is that it is my responsibility to only teach critical thinking in school. I don’t agree with that. I believe we should teach critical thinking AND character education, which includes integrity, responsibility, and other ethical principles that are not only necessary for the workplace, but in life. In fact, character education is a part of our standards. I don’t need any particular grading policy to motivate students. I use leadership and team-building skills. Their grades are a byproduct of my professional relationship, not whether or not the students earn zeros.
    7. Here is an assumption that I have a big issue with: The distance between a D and an F should be the same as the distance between an A and a B, or a B and a C, and so on. I couldn’t disagree more. Nursing students fail nursing school if they earn lower than a C in their majors. Students who earn an A, or even a B, are either “well above average” or “above average.” A’s and B’s fall in the upper echelon because they demonstrate a MASTERY of the skills. Failure represents an overall lack of MASTERY. My personal belief is that passing a course should be a challenge. If you want to motivate students to meet that challenge, don’t assume that a grading policy is the bottom line between motivation and apathy.
    8. All the thinking in the world doesn’t suffice if a nursing student fails to complete the required tasks. Most degrees have built-in attendance requirements. So do jobs. If it isn’t our responsibility to teach students the importance of showing up, then whose responsibility is it? What about the college music major who aces all tests, but misses more than three days of class, and is subsequently failed? What of that person? Back to data. I am interested in finding out how many universities have adopted the “no zero” policy. I am willing to bet reputable institutions move more toward the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t see Duke University offering a “make it up when you have the time” assignment policy. That doesn’t embody rigor.
    9. Sure, there is no such thing as the “real world” versus the “current world”, but there certainly is a huge distinction between adult responsibility and the responsibility of minors who are public education students. As students progress throughout school, they’re given more responsibilities, along with more independence. At the secondary level, I am the final liaison before students enter college, the workforce, the military, etc. I represent the final transition. Are we really to teach students that they can choose for themselves which required assignments in life are “pointless” or not, according to their own personal opinions? Don’t we all sometimes have to persevere through a task for one reason or another, whether we want to or not? If a student says he/she doesn’t complete the assignment because it’s “boring” or “pointless”, then clearly that student does not understand the point of the assignment. No assignment is pointless. Teachers are students’ advocates, not enemies. If we are to truly teach students to think, then why not seize opportunities like that to challenge them to view the assignment from a new perspective, instead of the “this-is-boring-I-already-know-how-to-do-this-therefore-I-refuse-to-do-it” point-of-view?
    10. Like it or not, we are paid by government tax dollars because we are bureaucrats of the government. I teach in the United States. Public education is provided by the government. Of course one of its main functions is to produce an educated workforce. Why else would it be worth the tax dollars? We say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every single day. The United States spends a disproportionate amount of money on reading, math, and science education because those concepts are integral to our national defense in the long run. I’m sorry, but education is very much tied to the work force, at least where I teach. That is not an opinion, but a fact. Parents may not want their children to be a part of such a system. There are private schools across the nation that accommodate those preferences.

    Perhaps the zero is not the fundamental issue at all, but instead, could it be the lack of consistency among teachers in grading policies? I am a very successful teacher who still issues zeros, and I know I am not the only one. Even the high school student in the comment above admits that the discrepancy between grading policies is a motivating factor in his apathy toward his grades. That’s a human resources issue. Would this conversation change if teachers were properly trained in grading policies that prove most effective and consistent?

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