Sunday, June 20, 2021

Outlier Practices Make or Break the Learning Experience

We learn, and remember for that matter, from experience.  Thus, it is critical that the culture in your classroom and school positively impacts learners while adequately preparing them for their future, not our past.  I shared the following in Chapter 7 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

Almost all of us have heard the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” Growing up, I heard it a great deal. At the time, I didn’t appre¬ciate it or fully understand its meaning, but now I wholeheartedly con¬cur. Of course, there are some experiences I wish I could have avoided that resulted in negative outcomes, but they are still a significant com¬ponent of my story. The driving force behind the decisions we make is the innate beliefs we have about ourselves. Our experiences, positive and negative, shape who we are. They become an integral part of us and create our story.

Think about why you went into the field of education.  For many of us, the answer lies in the relationships that were forged by amazing teachers, administrators, coaches, custodians, bus drivers, or other support staff.  It was the experience that each provided that helped shape us into who we are today.  For me, there were several standout teachers that impacted me in ways that I am forever grateful for. Here is what I shared in Disrutive Thinking:

These teachers—and a handful of others throughout my own K-12 educational journey—engaged in practices that were memorable and perhaps even outside the norm. They did not focus on grades and homework; instead, they focused on learning and creating experiences designed to enhance students’ learning and push our thinking. In many ways, they were “outlier” educators who engaged in “outlier” practices which resulted in outside-the-box thinking and learning on the part of the students with whom they interacted. Pockets of excellence such as these examples are no longer good enough.

Many practices in education can fall into the outlier category. For the intents of this post, I want to focus on those that are either overused, underused, or ineffective, and that can either make or break a student’s experience.  They are as follows:

  • Grades
  • Zeros
  • Homework
  • Feedback
  • Reflection 


Numbers and letters are synonymous with education. While I am not opposed to grades, I do feel that they often lack true clarity in terms of what a student has learned but are still an overused element in a traditional classroom.  The key is to make them as meaningful as possible through the use of multiple means of assessment, including rubrics and scaffolded tasks aligned to relevant application.  Assigning arbitrary points for participation and behavior as a part of scoring guides or on research papers should be avoided. These do not reflect what has been learned.  


The practice of assigning a zero is ineffective as the only role it serves is to punish kids. Once given, it will completely distort a student’s grade, which will no longer represent what has been learned.  It is essential to determine first and foremost why the task is not being completed in the first place. In almost all cases, the assignment should be marked as incomplete until it is done. In my opinion, a zero should only be considered in the cases of cheating or if all other strategies have been exhausted. 


Rarely does a child come home excited to complete homework, yet it represents another overused outlier strategy. It tends to diminish excitement and appreciation for learning.  Many times, it is assigned because that’s the way it has always been.  In moderation, homework can be an effective strategy if it allows for the authentic application of key concepts learned in a timely manner.  You also can’t go wrong with reading. It should not be graded as there are equity issues or take hours of time to complete. Kids need to be kids. 


While a grade might be the final indicator of what has been learned, it’s the feedback that helps students along the way.  This is an underused strategy where there is always room for growth.  Effective feedback is delivered promptly, involves learners in the process, and articulates how to advance towards a goal in relation to standards or concepts. 


John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflective learning allows kids to step back from their learning experience to help them develop disruptive thinking and improve future performance by analyzing their experience. It assists them in moving from surface to deep learning. Writing, video, peer interaction, and closure questions are a great way to incorporate reflection regularly. 

Outlier practices, depending on how they are implemented, can either promote or inhibit disruptive thinking. As you reflect on the outlier practices above where do you see an opportunity to grow or improve? What action steps will you take? The main takeaway is how they are implemented in ways that support or enhance learning while helping to build powerful relationships in the process. 


  1. Great post Eric! I also believe in assigning "incomplete" instead of a zero. Where it becomes a little tricky for us is when we are at the end of a semester, and the student still has not handed in the assignment or completed the evaluation. I highly encourage my teachers to use triangulation (conversations, observations, productions) to assign grades, but I would be curious to know your thoughts on what to do with the "incomplete". Thanks again !

  2. I appreciate the perspective from which this is delivered. Learning in a classroom goes beyond content to skills and habits or practices. Time management and accountability are important for students to learn in a low-risk or somewhat low-risk environment before they transition to the workforce. I think zeros have a time and place but should be used as a final resort.

  3. The "outlier practices" that resonate with me the most are grades. Grades are not an accurate reflection of what the student has learned. I have had students participate and answer correctly to oral questions. However, once they take the paper test version, they fail. There could be many reasons for that; for example, it could be nerves or not good test-takers. On the other hand, I have had students that do not participate during class or class assignments and do very well on a test. Teachers must observe students and get to know them. When giving a student a zero, it sets them up for failure. It is hardly impossible for a student to pick that grade up. Teachers should find another way to provide the student with feedback and help them be successful.

  4. I agree with what this article talks about. I try to implement each of the key points. Education should always focus on learning through experiences. For grading, I do give incompletes to give students time to complete assignments. I strive to find out why students are not able to complete an assignment and if I must sit with them to finish, I do give them that support if they want it. Homework in moderation is good. It gives the student stamina to study because if they decide on higher education, they will have homework. It is important to give students feedback immediately because they can reflect on their learning and improve upon that. Students need to be given the opportunity to grow and improve their learning.

  5. The article hit on some very important information, especially since it helps put in perspective how learning is valued from an outside perspective, such as the administrator that wrote this. I agree with the author regarding that grades and homework don't always help our students learn because it over-compartmentalizes one's learning to a number/letter instead of the actual learning itself. That was especially proven through our current pandemic as my students who I never saw were less engaged than those that I worked with and provided provided feedback. Regarding the homework, I am not sure about it because it does help with the practice, but I do agree that too much homework can be a burden.

  6. The article hit on some very important information, especially since it helps put in perspective how learning is valued from an outside perspective, such as the administrator that wrote this. I agree with the author regarding that grades and homework don't always help our students learn because it over-compartmentalizes one's learning to a number/letter instead of the actual learning itself. That was especially proven through our current pandemic as my students who I never saw were less engaged than those that I worked with and provided provided feedback. Regarding the homework, I am not sure about it because it does help with the practice, but I do agree that too much homework can be a burden.

    Alexander Hernandez UTRGV EDTC 8371

  7. I completely agree with this article, grades are not a reflection of what a student has or has not learned. Some students, myself included, are just not good test takers. They know all the information needed but once that test/exam has been put in front of them they literally go blank. I had never experienced a class that gives as much feedback as the previous two classes I just finished taking, and that feedback was extremely important to me. It gave me either a good job but fix this or a think about it in this context and I honestly enjoyed it, it motivated me to do better on the next project. Homework to an extent is good, as far as individual practice goes, but it should be minimal to not overload the students. Zeros, they're very hard to come back from, once a student gets a zero they might think oh well its over, there's no way I'll pass now and completely forgo doing everything else that is required, I've seen it firsthand.This article has some very good points that I will take into consideration this coming school year.

  8. This is a great article that gives me great insight. It is refreshing to hear how teaching and learning is not only about grades and homework. I believe that students can have a move affective and positive learning experience at school if it is made engaging and fun. I also believe homework can be a positive experience but can quickly turn negative when the assignments are repetitive with no meaning. While reading this article, I was reflecting on the way I teach and how my students succeed in my classroom. I do admit I can say I know some coworkers of mine and myself are guilty of focusing only on the outcome of a grade. I believe teachers are also pressured and constantly reminded of how important that is. Example."Our campus needs to be an "A" campus." Administration and educators do need to take a step back and reflect together on how we can all make teaching and learning fun with more educational experiences and feedback.

  9. After reading this article, many doubts that had been haunting me were finally put to rest. Many of my colleagues do not agree with my philosophy of not bombarding the students with too much homework or giving them zeros. I felt relived and excited to know that what I do in my classroom is shared by others. Besides not giving too much homework to my students or giving them zeros, I completely refuse to use red ink to "grade" their work. I believe that too much red ink onto a student's paper can also cause anguish and low self esteem for some students. I agree with the author about feedback and reflection too! I provide my students with the opportunity to reflect on what they learned any particular day. I like to reflect as well based on their feedback. If I notice that low feedback was given or that the students were confused, that is the perfect time for me to reflect and come up with a better and updated lesson plan to fix any issues that went wrong. I also like bonding and getting to know my students. This, for me, is an excellent way of engaging them into a trusting relationship where they can freely ask me whenever they do not comprehend something. Overall, I enjoyed reading this article so much! It helped me realized that I am in the right path and in the right field.

    Bertha L. Esparza

  10. The outlier practice that most resonated with me is the one regarding zeros. Although the author considers it a punitive tactic, and it is often used as such, it serves a purpose when averaging grades and gathering insight as to how well students are doing on any given assignment. It also provides the instructor insight on who is not completing the work.
    Inevitably, each semester I have students who choose not to complete assignments despite having ample time to do so. I send reminders, am ready to work on providing them an accommodation which will allow them to complete the work, and yet there is no contact/response/explanation from them. How can an instructor not record a zero in those instances? I do not like to see anyone fail nor tap into their potential to learn, therefore I try to exhaust all options before recoding that grade for a student.

  11. This is a very powerful article, as I have always argued that implementing homework, really does not promote learning. I have always believed that homework, if any, should compliment the class room instruction. I have taught both math and science, and have never assigned homework because I give my students time to work on the lesson in class. Giving (0)'s is not a reflection of the students true work, many students are screaming "Help me, I don't understand!" when they refuse to turn in assignments. They are struggling and adding humiliation to the problem does nto bring them any further to success. And using Red ink, to any assignment, will provide negative feedback to any student work. These are all antiquated ideals that need to stay in the past, as stated feedback and reflection is key to student success. Collaboration and projects have always worked for me, because they show the true knowledge that the student has learned based on the teacher's instruction. If you see that the student is still struggling, then pairing them with a stronger student, will defineatly increase student confidence, and get them on tract to success.

  12. Rochelle Brooks

    I have an issue with giving students a zero. I like the idea of giving an incomplete instead, if there is time left in the term. If the student turns in the correct assignment they should be given a grade other than zero. It is also important to find out why students are not submitting work and if possible, address those issues.

  13. Rochelle Brooks

    The one that struck me the most is giving students a zero. If a student submits the correct assignment, they should be given a grade other than zero. Provided there is time left in there term, students who do not submit an assignment should be given a chance to submit it or given a substitute assignment to make up the grade. It is important to find out why it was not submitted and if possible, address the issue. I think that students who receive a failing grade should also be given a substitute assignment.

  14. We should not be judgmental of students. If a child is not grasping a particular lesson in Mathematics or science, is it be because each child is unique and we try to put a one size fits all approach. May be we need to try different approaches to teaching.