Much Ado About Zeroes

What do you do when a student doesn’t complete her work? This has becoming a surprisingly hot issue in education.

Before I get too far, let’s make some distinctions. First, we shouldn’t expect a single statement or policy to cover every situation. A six-year-old who didn’t finish writing a good copy of her story should be treated differently from an undergraduate who didn’t write her philosophy term paper. Two primary differences are maturity and age. A piano teacher may quite reasonably tell the parents of a private student that if she is not going to do her practice, the parents should remove her from lessons. The issue here is not age or maturity, but the nature of the teacher-student relationship. Like the undergraduate, the piano student is a volunteer, not a conscript. Kindergarten to high schools students in a public system, on the other hand, are legally bound to be in school, and the school is legally bound to teach them.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s think about students in a public school situation. Age, maturity and situational factors are still in play, but I think we can balance it all in our minds.

I have argued that a teacher is someone who bears responsibility for another person’s learning. Part of this responsibility is generally understood to involve assessing that learning. And part of the responsibility involves creating and supervising activities or tasks that promote relevant learning.

Imagine a high school teacher assigns an essay for the class to write. For the sake of argument, let’s say the students are to present a case for the guilt or innocence of Louis Riel on charges of treason in 1885. What’s the point of such an assignment? It seems to me that there are several important points. First, by doing the reading, the student is gathering information and understanding of a significant event in Canadian history. Second, the student will be required to gain some understanding of the nature of treason, and the reasoning that was put forth in the relevant laws of the time. Third, the student will gain experience and skill in presenting a logically coherent argument. Fourth (not finally, as it’s pretty easy to come up with more) the student will demonstrate her competence in all these things. In short, the assignment is both an opportunity for the student to learn, and it is an opportunity for the teacher to assess the students’ learning and competence, and to feed that information back to the student for further learning. It’s a win all around.

Suppose that the student doesn’t do the assignment. Now what?

A knee-jerk reaction may be “give the kid a zero”. Ok. Let’s see how that squares with the purposes of the assignment.

  • Did the student gather information and understanding of the historical event?
  • Did the student learn about treason and treason laws?
  • Did the student improve in her ability to articulate a coherent argument?
  • Did the teacher assess the student’s learning or competence?

Sadly, the answer to each question is NO. I suppose the teacher could give the zero. It wouldn’t provide any information about the student other than record the fact that the assignment wasn’t done. Of course there are other ways to do that, but this is one.

In short. The problem is that the student didn’t gain the relevant knowledge and competence that the assignment was designed to foster, and the teacher did not gather any meaningful information about the student’s learning or competence. The teacher did gather information about the student’s compliance, and that’s about it.

So what should the teacher do?

Remember what I said about bearing responsibility for another person’s learning? The teacher’s task now becomes clear. The teacher needs to find some way to get the student to complete this—or some equivalent—assignment. Assigning a grade of zero and moving on is an abdication of responsibility. So how do you do this? Sometimes it’s easy, but often it’s not.

Step one. Speak to the student. Why wasn’t it done? There may be a very good reason; there might not be. Regardless, some concession is going to have to be made so that it gets done. Perhaps the solution is as simple as agreeing to a new deadline. But what if the student doesn’t cooperate? Step two: that’s what the teacher’s telephone is for. Contact parents or guardians. Yes, it’s a pain; but it’s our job. We bear some responsibility for the student’s learning, and we cannot wiggle out of it so easily. If you’re unhappy that your student didn’t find the time to write an essay, how could you justify not finding the time to make a phone call? If this doesn’t help, the school’s administration is the key to step three.

The point is, if the assignment is in the student’s interest as a learner, then part of the teacher’s job is to ensure that it is done.

A punitive zero is not an assessment. It’s an abdication.


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