Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 14/14.4.2

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Zeros and Missing Work: What's a Teacher to Do?

By Sarah Rooks

Learning Targets[edit]

Readers should be able to…

• Understand the effect zeros have on students’ grades

• Identify alternatives to zeros in the grade book

• Gain knowledge of about four mainstream theories to use when a student is missing assignments


The deadline for progress reports for the new school year is approaching, and almost everything is perfect. This afternoon, a few days before grades are due, the teacher even has the entire planning time to go over the grade book. Reviewing the low or failing grades, he is in a state of disbelief and begins to wonder if there are some grades he misplaced or forgot to enter. After some searching and a moment of reflection, he shakes his head and demands of the classroom of empty desks their missing assignments. Another moment passes and he sarcastically sighs, “I would have received a similar response from students.” What does he do now?

Zeros and missing assignments: they happen to the best, worst, novice, and veteran teachers alike. Doing background research online, I encountered blog after blog devoted to the issue. Does this not speak volumes of the frustration that teachers experience when they open their grade books? Four theories of development were researched to provide intervention techniques to help teachers find causes, as well as solutions, among students who do not turn in assignments. There are groups who support reforming the grading scale to remove zeros completely. Other groups of teachers believe that students earn zeros for overdue assignments and homework. In addition, many teachers are adjusting their degree of flexibility- or rigidness- of accepting late work depending upon the type of assignment. While a variety of methods, theories, and opinions exist on zeros and missing assignments, their common goal is to improve students’ grades via ethical means.

Four Theories of Development[edit]

How should a teacher get a student to stop missing assignments? Dr. Isabel Killoran explains behaviorism, constructivism, maturational theory, and ecological theory, and how they can help teachers answer that question. The author does state that there are other theories of development and that every individual will have his or her own opinion as to the best theory for the situation. The chart provides a clear overview of her article.

Behaviorism indicates that people’s behavior can be either positively or negatively reinforced. The article demonstrates both reinforcers in the following example: “…Let’s assume that every time [the student] comes to school without her homework done she has to stay in for recess with you. She may enjoy being with you, which would make this positive reinforcement. On the other hand, she may also be trying to avoid something outside, such as bullies. …[K]eeping her in would be negative reinforcement because you would be removing a situation she wants gone…. If this is what she wants she will continue not doing her homework.” (Killoran, page 2004). The teacher would need to determine what the student likes or dislikes, and then apply either positive or negative reinforcement.

With an approach through constructivism, the teacher first needs to determine which developmental stage the student is in. When that is known, the teacher needs to select work appropriate for the developmental stage. If the issue of missing assignments is only happening repeatedly among that one student, then this approach can be considered. If the entire class is behind or far ahead, perhaps the issue is with the assignment itself. For the purposes of explanation on how to intervene with the constructivism theory, one student in the class seems to be at a different developmental stage. The teacher would need to adjust the assignment for that one student, in addition to “encouraging interaction that will lead to the next level” (Killoran, 2004).

The maturational theory sounds similar to constructivism, but they have distinct differences. Maturational theorists agree that the student is not at the developmental stage; however, it is due to the student’s biological factors (Killoran, 2004). The student will require extra time for completing the assignment and should not be rushed into the next level.

The ecological systems theory, developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, states there is a person and a series of systems in his environment. The person and systems interact with one another. The teacher needs to find which system is inhibiting completion of assignments and resolve the specific issue. This can be complicated as the person and all his systems connect to each other as well as other possible people.

Table 1 - Problem Behavior Not Completing Homework (Killoran, 2004).

Theory of Development Explanation Intervention
Behaviorism Child is receiving a reinforcer for not completing her homework. Identify an appropriate reinforcer and present it upon completion of homework.
Constructivism Child is functioning at a different operational level than what is required to complete the homework. Give the child homework at the correct level. Continue to set up the classroom to encourage interaction that will lead to the next level.
Maturation Theory Child is unable to understand the work. Give the gift of time. Do not push the child. Give the child developmentally appropriate homework.
Ecological Systems Theory Something in the child’s environment is interfering with the child’s ability or desire to complete the homework. Ask the child if there is a problem at home or in school. Work with the parents or peers to help the child complete the work.

Keep or Outlaw the Zero?[edit]

Perhaps none of the four above-mentioned theories work well some teachers’ styles or beliefs. To relieve teachers and students of zeros, some people are trying to remove the zero from the grading system. This is not just a move to become the popular teacher among the students. Its basis is correlating letter grades to number grades. For example, the lowest passing grade is a D. Using the City of Newport News, Virginia’s grading scale, 65/100 is the lowest possible D. This makes 0-64 an F, therefore making 64 a failing grade. Applying the author’s viewpoint, the student who does not turn in the assignment will receive a 64, not a 0, in the grade book. It is mathematically difficult to recover from a few zeros in the grade book (Reeves, 2004). For another example, if the first homework assignment receives a 100, and the second received a zero, then the student’s homework average is a 50, or an F. By replacing the zero in the above example with a failing number grade (64), the student’s homework average is an 82, which is a C. Although most classes provide students with several homework assignments, it is common for students to not do their homework and still receive passing scores on the quizzes, tests and other work. This theory has the potential to prevent D students from failing the class in addition to making the difference between an A and a B.

In British Columbia, Canada, some principals are “ordering [teachers] to never give zeros when marking class assignments [and] to accept late work…” (Vancouver Sun, 2009), which is based on a program called Assessment for Learning. The article also mentions that the program allows students to re-take tests until they receive a passing score. One teacher is glad that schools are considering different avenues; however, he believes the teacher should not be forced to implement this program. Some teachers hold the opinion that the principals are using the program as a means to increase graduation rates. The majority of members of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, parents, and other teachers are against and even outraged by these practices. Teachers’ and parents’ responses to this article online support the keeping of zeros and the refusing to accept late work.

Here is a link to the Vancouver Sun article

How to Deal[edit]

First determine the polices regarding late work in your school (, 2009). Many schools include these policies in their student handbooks, so students and parents can refer to the handbook if they question the teacher’s decision. Popular suggestions for homework are using a specific in-box for collection, or a stamp to indicate that the assignment is on time. Some teachers have found that incompletes (an “I”) motivate their students. One teacher’s students got irritated when they received an I instead of knowing their real grade, so they learned to stay on top of their deadlines (, 2009). For big projects or tests turned in after the due date (without an excused absence) many teachers deduct ten points for each day it is late. This technique is meant to motivate students but sometimes this frustrates teachers whose “A student” is willing to accept a B because he or she is working, too busy, procrastinating, etc. Trial-and-error is a recurring theme in the published discussions, blogs and message boards by teachers who are still searching for solutions to this issue. Even though different teachers use different methods, they share the same attitude, which is to make their expectations clear and be consistent with their own policies, procedures, and consequences.


Nothing, nil, nought, zip, zilch, goose egg… in the English language, there are so many words which mean zero. While doing only thirty hours of observation for my ECI 301 class, I heard many synonyms for zero and even more teachers beg students for missing assignments. As future educators, we want young people to do well in school so they are better prepared for life’s real responsibilities. Determining why a student has zeros and missing work opens the door to a myriad of solutions to help improve grades. Insightful and knowledgeable teachers possess the skills to create the delicate balance between tough love and second chances in the classroom.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

1. James earns the following grades on six homework assignments: 0, 0, 50, 100, 100, 100. What is his current homework grade and is he passing based on the following grading scale: A 92-100; B 83-91; C 74-82; D 73-65; F Below 65?

A. 58, F, not passing

B. 70, D, passing

C. 80, C, passing

D. 87.5, B, passing

2. James earns the following grades on homework assignments: 0, 0, 50, 100, 100, 100. His teacher gives zeros for late assignments, half credit for partially completed, and 100 for completed. His passing homework grade means the difference between a D and an F. What are some options his teacher can use help James pass the class?

A. Allow James to re-do the two missing homework assignments

B. Give the highest failing grade, a 64 for the late and partial assignments, giving him an 82 C for homework.

C. Replace the zeros with Is to allow an opportunity for make-up work

D. The teacher can choose from all of the above

3. James’s teacher wonders why he completed half of the assignments and did not complete the others. She discovers that he works a part-time job and that his family really needed the money. By allowing extra credit for on-time assignments as positive reinforcement, what theory of development is the teacher using?

A. Behaviorism

B. Constructivism

C. Maturational theory

D. Ecological theory

4. What is one difference between constructivism and maturational theory?

A. Behavior of the student

B. Biological factors

C. Developmental stages

D. Outside parties’ influences

Answers: 1)A; 2)D; 3)A; 4)B


Grading Scale (Student Evaluation) – High School. Newport News Public Schools. Retrieved March 19, 2009. from Newport News Public Schools Web Site:

In case you missed it- Failing grades for late assignments: teaching responsibility or giving permission to fail? Retrieved March 21, 2009.

Kelly, M. How to Deal with Late Work and Make Up Work: Late Work and Make Up Work Policies. Retrieved March 21, 2009. From Website:

Killoran, I. (2003, December). Why Is Your Homework Not Done? How Theories of Development Affect Your Approach in the Classroom. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 30(4), 309-315. Retrieved March 21, 2009, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.

Reeves, D. (2004, December). The Case Against the Zero. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(4), 324-325. Retrieved March 21, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Steffenhagen, J. (2009). We’re told to go easy on students, B.C. teachers say. Retrieved March 19, 2009, from The Vancouver Sun Web site:

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