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Diving Into the Unknown: How to Respond to Students Who Don't Turn In Work


Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” His point was labels don’t matter. When it comes to grading, the same is not true. Let me explain.

A Zero is Not a Zero

Imagine you have four students. 

  • Student A turned in the work on time and got every answer wrong

  • Student B did not turn in the work on time and got every answer right

  • Student C did not turn in the work on time and got half the answers right.

  • Student D did not do the work so it’s unknown if the answers would have been accurate

Student A

Student B

Student C

Student D


On Time



Not At All






Grade in the Grade Book





Students A, B, C, and D all have zeros for this assignment in your grade book. 

By the way, this happens all of the time in schools.

As shown in the matrix below, there are four possible outcomes given the two variables of accuracy and submission. 

In the example above, Student A who turned in work on time and got every question wrong would be in the Low Accuracy, High Submission quadrant. Student B would be in the High Accuracy, Low Submission quadrant because that student did the work well, but submitted it late. Both Student C and D are in the Low Accuracy, Low Submission quadrant though only Student C did the work. 

A 100 is Not a 100

Let’s flip this scenario. As the teacher, you start each class by walking around the room to see if the students did the work, not if the work is accurate. After checking to see who did and didn’t do the work, you share the right answers in class. 

Imagine you have two students. 

  • Student E did the work and got every answer wrong

  • Student F did the work and got every answer right

Since you only checked for completion (not accuracy) and Student E and F did the work, they both earned the same score in your grade book. This also happens all of the time in schools.

Student E

Student F


On Time

On Time




Grade in the Grade Book



In the second example, Student E would be in the Low Accuracy, High Submission quadrant. Student F would be in the High Accuracy, High Submission quadrant because that student did the work well and turned in the work.

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

For grades to be valid, or accurate reflections of what is intended to be assessed, grades must only measure a student’s knowledge of the content (see my post, “Food for Thought” to learn more about validity and reliability regarding grading). When other factors, including, but not limited to, timeliness of the submission, are taken into consideration, the validity of the grades is compromised. 

Want proof? Of all five students in these two scenarios…

  • Students B and F are the only ones who showed 100% accuracy yet only one of them (Student F) scored 100% in the grade book; Student B scored 0%. 

  • One student earned 100% even though all answers were wrong (Student E). 

  • Only two students have valid scores:

    • Student A who submitted the work on time and answered every question wrong earned 0%

    • Student F who submitted the work on time and answered every question correctly earned 100%.

  • Four out of six students (66%) have invalid grades because the grade does not align with the students’ accuracy:

    • Student B (got all questions correct yet scored 0%)

    • Student C (got 50% of the questions correct yet scored a 0%)

    • Student D (we have no idea what the student knows or doesn’t but earned 0%)

    • Student E (got all questions wrong yet scored 100%)

On a side note: I am aware some teachers get upset when a district only allows the lowest grade a student can earn on the report card to be 50% because they say the student didn’t really earn 50%. Their point is that a grade of 50% is not valid since it communicates the student knows more than they know. Interestingly, I cannot recall hearing teachers who sweep the room to check to see if the students did the work (completion) but not check for accuracy get upset when a student who completed the work incorrectly gets full credit. This teacher behavior is equally invalid and communicates the students know more than they know, yet, again, giving full credit for completion only (not accuracy) is a common practice in classrooms.

Call It What It Is

When grading New York State Assessments if a student answers a short or constructed response question wrong, the question is scored as a zero. If the student leaves the question blank, the score is not a zero, it’s a “Condition Code A.” Now I can’t tell you what “Condition Code A” stands for, but what I can say is that “wrong” is not the same as “blank.” Knowing if a student answered a question incorrectly or simply didn’t answer it at all is important information about a child’s knowledge of the content. 

To gain valuable insights into student learning, teachers can separately track which questions students answer incorrectly and which questions they leave blank. This practice will increase the validity and reliability of student grades and improve the methods teachers use with students during reteaching opportunities. 

Students who left questions blank should be asked to complete the questions so the teacher can learn what the students know and don’t know. Students who answered questions wrong, on the other hand, need opportunities to learn the incorrect knowledge through interventions, differentiation, etc.

Completely Incomplete

As I wrote in my last Lyon’s Letter, “It’s Time to Do Better,” 

Logically speaking, the point of doing the assignment in the first place, is to ensure the student acquires the intended learning. Therefore, if the student does not do the assignment, the intended learning did not happen. Furthermore, without the intended learning, there is a gap in the student’s knowledge.

The point is that giving a student a zero because they didn’t do the work is like giving a kid who skips class suspension. If a kid doesn’t want to be in your class, you are inadvertently rewarding them by giving them what they want: suspension. A kid who doesn’t want to do the work and gets a zero got what they wanted–they didn’t do the work. While that may be a consequence, it is not a logical consequence since the punishment doesn’t match the crime. Here’s an example of a logical consequence unrelated to grading. A student threw food in the cafeteria therefore the student has to clean the cafeteria. Here’s another. A student skipped a class therefore the student has to make up that class during their study hall. 

So, what is the logical consequence for a student who doesn’t do the assignment? You’ve got it! The student needs to do the assignment. Not only is this important so the teacher can assess what the student knows or doesn’t know after doing the assignment (in a way that is literally impossible if the student never does the assignment), it is critical for the student to do the learning of the intended assignment. If the student is not required to do the assignment, then the assignment was unnecessary to the learning in the first place. This would make me wonder why it was assigned at all.

The grade in the grade book for a missing assignment should not be a zero; it should be an incomplete. That said, I know there are teachers who have tried using incompletes in the grade book but found incompletes were less motivating to students to get the work in as a zero. If that’s the case, then find a different code such as a *0 or 1% or some other means to differentiate that the work is missing, not wrong. Better yet, teach students explicitly why turning work in on time matters (because it is used by the teacher to know what to do next). Giving students the “why” behind turning in work on time can be a game-changer for focusing on the learning rather than on compliance.

Get Out of Debt

Since not submitting work is non-compliance (the lowest form of engagement on The Engagement Matrix), when writing 50 Ways to Engage Students with Google Apps, Alice Keeler and I included a strategy called, “Replacing Assignments.” The initial goal with non-compliant students is to help them become compliant. When it comes to making up incomplete work, depending on how far behind the student is, the task can seem insurmountable; the reality is some students may never be able to catch up when they get behind on work. This can create a scenario where students (a) know that no matter what they do now, they cannot pass and so (b) they stop trying. This does not help the teacher either, since students who do not have prerequisite knowledge will struggle with subsequent learning. (By the way, this is actually the reason why, though invalid, assigning a student a score no less than 50% on a report card is done–without it, a student may never be able to dig themselves out of a hole. In this case, the lack of validity is preferred over a lack of motivation.)

In reality, we know that doing something is better than doing nothing. With that in mind, how can you help a disengaged student re-engage? The easiest way to bolster engagement is to change the task. Rather than having the student complete all the back-work, provide them with one or more options to show the learning. Keep in mind, with this strategy, the grades for the alternative assignments do not have to be of equal value to the original assignments—here the goal is to achieve similar or equivalent learning to the original assignments. 

Not only will this strategy lead to learning, but it can also have a positive impact on your relationship with students. After all, showing the students you are committed to their success is a great relationship builder.

Failing Forward

The current grading system often fails to accurately represent student learning. A focus on completion over comprehension and a lack of differentiation for incomplete work leads to grades that can be misleading and demotivating. As William Shakespeare penned in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," and surely, a student's knowledge encompasses more than compliantly doing work or turning it in on time.

Rather than using what we’ve always done but doesn’t work, we need to embrace solutions like: 

  • Distinguishing between "blank" and "wrong" answers: Knowing if a student attempted a question is valuable information for tailoring instruction.

  • Using "incomplete" instead of zero for missing work: This clarifies the issue and motivates students to complete the assignment for learning's sake.

  • Offering alternative assessments for struggling students: Providing different ways to demonstrate understanding allows students to show their knowledge despite past shortcomings.

By implementing these changes, we can create a grading system that more accurately reflects student learning and fosters a more positive and productive learning environment. This would certainly smell sweet!


P.S. Averages are so common with grades that we lose sight of the fact that an average can be a calculation where the final answer is a number that never was in the sequence of original numbers. For example, if you use the numbers 0+10, the average is 5, but neither number is 5. My Catch of the Week, the TEDx, "The Myth of Average," drives this point home in a way my brief example could never do. Enjoy!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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1 Comment

LOVE THIS! Your approach to grades and assessments is both refreshing and necessary in the current educational climate. Grades are subjective and your examples brilliantly highlight just how true this is. Grades are not a measure of a student's knowledge or abilities, but rather a reflection of one teacher's criteria at that particular time. Offering incompletes and allowing students to do a different assignment shifts the focus back to what truly matters- THE LEARNING!!!!! Thank you for your emphasis on learning over compliance. It is a breath of fresh air. I will be bookmarking this blog for future reference!

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