No-Zero Grading

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After mentioning non-zero grading in a meeting, several people have asked me about it.

First, I will say that the idea of non-zero grading is not new. Admittedly, I am not even close to a Mathematician – but even I know the difference between a 0 (F) and a passing grade of 60 (D) is greater than the difference between a 60 (D) and a 70 (C). What seems at first like a crazy idea – let’s give people points for doing nothing – is actually a way to balance the percentage scale we use for grading. A student who earns a 50 for not turning anything in still earns an F. It just means that a student who missed the first assignment, earning a zero, will not have to stare at a failing grade for several more assignments, even if those other assignments were perfect A’s.

Let’s say a student misses the first assignment and gets a 0. They earn an 85 on the next assignment. Assuming these assignments are of equal weight, their average will be a 42.5 – still failing. Two weeks later they earn another 85 – still failing with 56.6. They would have to get three 85’s to make it to 63%. All the while they feel like they are failing and losing motivation. Now, let’s apply non-zero grading. For the missed assignment, they are assigned a 50. After the second assignment, the average is up to 67.5. Still less than the 85, but showing progress more quickly and probably feeling better about the class. Remember, they still failed the first assignment. By the 3rd assignment they have an average of 73 and motivation is growing! By the forth they have a 76. So this doesn’t mean the students are given something for nothing, it just means they are not being disproportionately penalized.

Second, non-zero grading is one tool in a toolbox to achieve equity in grading. “Grading for Equity” by Joe Feldman is a fine book to read to understand more fully the importance of equitable grading and to pick up a few strategies as you reflect on your own practices. I recommend it.

Article: The Case Against Zero