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

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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… Read more »

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.


Honestly, I am stunned…simply stunned by this utter and complete nonsense. Children are human beings not aliens with a completely “other” mindset. In 25 years I’ve seen it all…from Whole Language-where we were told not to worry about teaching grammar, spelling and punctuation but just to allow the students to “enjoy the process of learning new words,” resulting in a generation that doesn’t know a verb from a noun, to this “No Zero Policy” crap. I recently moved to a new school that employs this horrendous practice and had I’d been told during the interview process that this school is… Read more »

Lorri Connor

I don’t know where you got the idea that zeros don’t mean anything to kids. I was a kid once and I knew what a zero meant. In fact, I had a crystal clear understanding of the concept. My students know what zeros mean. They ask me about them, (with quite a significant degree of concern, thank God,) whenever they see them online…why would they do that if they were meaningless? Seems to me that you’ve simply made this up. Whatever the source, you need to revisit this notion. It’s nonsensical and silly. There is no way anyone who supports… Read more »