No Zeros: Grading Epiphany 3

While I’ve said that Grading Epiphany 1 (Don’t Grade Student Behavior) probably changed my classroom practice the most, the Grading Epiphany I’ll share today has probably caused the most raised eyebrows when sharing my ideas with colleagues.

As the title makes clear, Grading Epiphany 3 is No Zeros.

I’ll let that sink in for a sec.

Yep - no zeros in grades.

And this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky wouldn’t-it-be-nice kind of thing. I really do not assign zeros to my students. Even if they neglect to turn in an assignment.

There are both mathematical and psychological reasons why I don’t assign zeros. Let’s dive in.

First, the math.

If your school uses the traditional letter grade breakdowns, your grading scale probably looks something like this:

  • A: 90-100%
  • B: 80-89%
  • C: 70-79%
  • D: 60-69%
  • F: 0-59%

There is a 10-point difference between an A, B, C, and D, but when we get to the F grade, suddenly the range is 59 points wide. Which means that the lowest F is 60 points away from the lowest D, while the lowest D is only 10 points away from the lowest C.

And if you’re like most of us (myself included), your students’ grades are determined by taking the total number of points they’ve earned and dividing it by the total number of points possible. In other words, their grade is an average of all the scores they’ve received in that grading period.

The pesky thing about zeros is, they skew that average and make it wildly inaccurate.

For a lengthy explanation of this concept with numerous examples, be sure to read Ken O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning. This section will blow your mind if you’ve been living in the traditional grading world, as I was for so long.

An easy fix for this problem is to simply create a code in your grading program labeled INC (for incomplete, or I suppose you could use MIS for missing), and tell your software to count that code as a 50%. Now you’ve changed the game and saved your students from the Grading Hole of Doom.

Now, whenever a student neglects to turn in an assignment, they’ll be receiving a grade that will not skew their average grade out of proportion.

Another option is to change your grading scale and use something like a four-point scale, with a 4 representing the highest level of achievement, a 1 the lowest, and the 0 being reserved for work that wasn’t completed. In that case, the zero will work, because it is equidistant in value from all the other scores.

OR, here’s a crazy idea: we could stop grading students altogether and focus on meaningful feedback instead!

Whoops. I don’t know what came over me there. Back to the topic at hand: no more zeros in your gradebook.

Second, the psychology.

There are a couple of common-sense arguments to be made here in favor of using zeros when students don’t complete their work:

  1. If the student didn’t do the work, how can I give them 50%? That’s like getting something for nothing! It makes no sense! Ah yes, but it makes even less sense to give them a score that so mathematically skews their grade that just one missing assignment can drop them a whole letter or more, depending on the situation. I just dismiss this argument out of hand.

  2. When a student sees a zero in the gradebook, it motivates them to get the work in. If I don’t give them a zero, they won’t do the work! Oh man. There are so many problems with this argument.

    1. Yes, some students will be motivated by a zero. But not many. If you search the breadth and depth of your experience, you’ll see this is true. Haven’t you had plenty of students for whom a zero is not motivating, but rather deflating? (Research also backs this up. Zeros just don’t motivate most kids to do their work.)

    2. Uh… if the only reason students are doing the work in your class is to avoid zeros, then you have a problem. It means you have a classroom that isn’t centered on learning, curiosity, or student choice.

    3. Do you really want to use the beautiful assignments you’ve crafted as punishment for students? Come on, man. That’s not cool.

    4. One way I ensure students don’t simply coast through with 50% scores on crucial tasks is to state that certain tasks are mandatory; in other words, if a student doesn’t complete those tasks, they will not be able to pass the course, no matter what the computer says their overall percentage is. Yes, one time a kid failed my American Lit class with a 71%. And that’s okay.  

If this idea of no longer using zeros is intriguing to you, I encourage you to do some Googling. There are plenty of better-educated authors and thinkers out there who have written much more coherently on this topic.

Just speaking from my own experience, I will say that when I stopped assigning zeros, I saw my students’ grades come much more into line with what their actual skills and knowledge were. (Keep in mind that to see full alignment, you would also need to stop grading other student behaviors, like effort.)

Reach out either here on the blog or via Twitter if you have any questions or want to start a dialogue on this topic - it’s a great one to grapple with.

Some of the links in the above post are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning that we may receive a small percentage of any purchases you make, at no additional cost to you.

Erin DickeyComment