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Why is it that so many gifted children suffer so wide a breach between potential and performance? What is it that causes so many gifted children to lose this spark? What can be done to rekindle it? How can the energy be channeled after it is rekindled?

- Webb, Meckstroth and Tolan, Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers 1989

Underachievement

Introduction

Underachievement is the difference between what a student is capable of doing/producing (their potential) and what they are actually doing/producing. Statistics indicate that half of gifted students do not reach levels consistent with their tested abilities (Rimm, 1994).

Robinson, Shore, and Enerson (2007) explain that gifted underachievers vary – they may be learners who:

  • underachieve due to being twice-exceptional/2E (gifted plus having a learning disability)
  • have low expectations
  • have family trauma
  • lack motivation.

Delisle and Galbraith (2002) argue that the word underachiever has very negative connotations that may result in "mental blocks". Dowdall and Colandelo (1982) explain that there are three underlying themes in the definition of underachievement:

  1. Underachievement as a discrepancy between potential achievement and actual achievement
  2. Underachievement as a discrepancy between predicted achievement and actual achievement
  3. Underachievement as a failure to develop or use potential. 

Often teachers will recognise negative coping mechanisms such as day-dreaming, deliberately underachieving (to hide their ability), behavioural problems, and deliberately only giving the bare minimum. These negative coping mechanisms are often a way for students to cope with a school system that does not motivate them (Cathcart, 2005).

Underachievers are often labelled as students who are unmotivated, when in fact, they are not being challenged and are therefore bored (Banks, et al., 2005). When gifted students repeat work that they already know or work at a level below what they are capable of, it has negative results on their learning. Cathcart (2005, p.36) says that students report being “frustrated, angry, helpless, resentful, and confused” when they are not challenged in class. They become disillusioned with the education system (school, teachers, and authority) and they “turn off” from learning (Cathcart, 1994). In fact, many successful gifted adults do not see their schooling as having significantly contributed to their development (Milgram, 1989). 

A student that is working at the top of a grade level could also be underachieving. For example, one school had three year 4 students who were achieving Stanine 9 in their year level mathematics PAT. When these students were tested above their year level, the school was surprised to find that the students achieved Stanine 9 in PATs designed for year 8. While they were still hitting the ceiling of these above level tests, the results gave the school far more information about the actual ability of the students. Through being set work at the top of year 4, these students were not meeting their potential. Without the above level testing, these students would have underachieved in mathematics because they were not given work at an appropriate level.

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