The Problem with Zeros

When Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Shepard High School in Edmonton, was suspended last May for defying the school’s grading policy by giving zeros to students for incomplete assignments, a nationwide debate erupted on the role of grades, student responsibility and motivation, as well as the professional judgment of teachers.

Over the summer, no-zero grading policies generated a no small amount of opinions and dubious claims about research on the impact of grading of student learning and achievement.

Dorval, a veteran of 35 years in the classroom, received his termination notice from Edmonton Public schools on September 14 for “repeated acts of insubordination, unprofessional conduct, and refusal to obey lawful orders”. An Edmonton School Board committee is currently reviewing the district’s assessment policy, which does not prohibit the use of zero grading (Dorval violated his school’s grading policy). Edmonton school superintendent Edgar Schmidt might have given a hint as to the direction the district policy is heading with a letter to parents last week declaring the district “expect[s] students to do their work … we will hold them accountable … we have not and will not pass students who do note complete their course requirements”. (There are no rules in British Columbia to prevent teachers from assigning zeros to students for incomplete work.)

Dorval was on his way back to the classroom in less than a week, at a private school where he’s allowed to give students zeros, but the logic for and research behind no-zero policies continues to be the subject of gross distortion in the mainstream media.

A common complaint voiced by opponents of no-zero grading policies is there is little or only flawed research to support such policies. For example, The Vancouver Sun and The Province have both recently run a column by Michael Zwaagstra in which he goes so far as to claim that research evidence to support no-zero policies are based on a single flawed study.

Zwaagstra, a teacher and research fellow at Winnipeg’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy—which the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has described as a Fraser Institute “clone”—also echoes the common-nonsense criticism that no-zero grading policies teach students they can fail to do their work and still get a reward.

These are specious claims.

Many of the arguments against no-zeros policies are based on outmoded and potentially harmful ways of thinking about the effect of grades on students’ behaviors and motivations to learn.

Historically, psychological theories viewed rewards as motivating people (and animals) to work and earn them. Over the past 50 years, research in cognitive psychology has shown that rewards are not motivators. Indeed, offering a reward (a good grade) contingent on behavior can actually decrease students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. One explanation for this is that students view the rewards as controlling their behavior, which is clearly the intent when teachers use zero grades.

The goal of schools should be to create motivated learning—motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills—rather than motivation to comply. Motivated learning requires schools to take multiple factors into account, including the use of rewards, but also the importance of social interaction, the role of emotions, self-regulation, and the fact that motivational processes work differently in different situations (for example, the need for achievement varies within individuals so that some students may be motivated to achieve in one subject, but not another, or in social domains, but not in athletics, etc.).

While most educators eschew the use of grades as a form of punishment, the fundamental and often unstated logic behind arguments against no-zero policies is “students need to suffer the consequences for not doing the work!”

This is not to say that grades are unimportant, studies confirm that students view high grades as positive recognition of their accomplishments and that some students will work to avoid the consequences of a low grade. But, there are no research studies that support the use of low grades as punishments.

Instead of prompting greater effort from students, using zeros in grading decreases motivation to learn and can promote a sense of helplessness to improve. When zeros are averaged into course grades their effects are intensified as students quickly see that a single zero gives them little chance for success. Often, to protect their self-images, students will then regard grades (and school) as irrelevant and meaningless.

Moreover, assigning zeroes to students’ work seldom reflects what a student has learned or is able to do. This was illustrated when my son produced some fabulous photographs from his trip to Alaska this summer. When he was reminded of his less than stellar grade in photography class at his East Vancouver high school he replied, “just because I got a bad grade doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything!” If students’ grades are to reflect what they have learned or mastered then assigning zeros is a failed approach.

There are alternatives to zero-grading that support and encourage motivated learning (as opposed to compliance). Students can learn to accept responsibility for their actions and be held accountable by using an “I” or “Incomplete” grade with detailed requirements for successful completion of work and requiring afterschool or Saturday classes. These alternatives require resources and adopting an approach to schooling that focuses on helping all students to become successful, motivated learners, rather than attempting to bend students to the will of the school.

When grades are used as weapons to force compliance, which is typically the case when zero grades are assigned, what does this say about a school’s approach to education? There is no evidence that assigning zeros teaches students to be responsible or accountable. There is plenty of evidence that assigning zeros can undermine students’ motivation to learn, while emphasizing that the school is more interested in students’ behavioral compliance than their learning.