Underachievement is the difference between what a learner is capable of doing/producing (their potential) and what they are actually doing/producing.

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:

  • underachievement as a discrepancy between potential achievement and actual achievement
  • underachievement as a discrepancy between predicted achievement and actual achievement
  • underachievement as a failure to develop or use potential.

Often, teachers recognise negative coping mechanisms such as daydreaming, deliberately underachieving (to hide ability), behavioural problems and deliberately only giving the bare minimum. These negative coping mechanisms can be a way for learners to cope with a school system that does not motivate them (Cathcart, 2005).

Underachievers are often labelled as learners who are unmotivated, when in fact, they are not being challenged and are therefore bored (Banks et al., 2005). When gifted learners repeat work that they already know, or work at a level below their capability, it has negative effects on their learning. Cathcart (2005) says that learners report being ‘frustrated, angry, helpless, resentful, and confused’ (p.36) 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 who is working at the top of a grade level could still be underachieving. For example, one school had three Year 4 learners who were achieving Stanine 9 in their year-level mathematics PAT. When these learners were tested above their year level, the school was surprised to find that the learners achieved Stanine 9 in PAT tests 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 learners. Through being set work at the top of Year 4, these learners were not meeting their potential. Without the above-level testing, these learners would have underachieved in mathematics because they were not given work at an appropriate level.

Suggestions to reverse underachievement

As underachievement is such a diverse area, there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve the issue. However, some theories and strategies could make difference in some learners’ attitudes towards themselves and education.

Teaching and learning

Creating a supportive learning environment, increasing the self-efficacy of the underachiever and using qualitative differentiation are aspects of practice for consideration.

A supportive learning environment is defined by Sparapani, Walker and VanTiflin (2009, p. 171) as shown in the figure below.

Sparapani, Walker and VanTiflin. .


Self-efficacy is a learner’s belief about how well they can do a task (Pintrich, 2003).

Bandura (as cited in Rawlinson, 2004, p. 468) states that a person’s self-efficacy determines whether a behaviour will be initiated, how much effort will be expended and whether the behaviour would continue in the face of obstacles. For some underachievers, providing experiences that will increase their self-efficacy could help to reverse underachievement.

St George and Riley (2008) and Rawlinson (2004) have summarised the following four experiences that could help raise self-efficacy in underachieving students:

  • having success on moderately challenging tasks (i.e., positive performance experiences) and receiving focused feedback emphasising effort, strategy use and skill
  • having vicarious experiences in which the student’s attention is drawn to examples of others who persevere and succeed
  • receiving verbal persuasion from someone who uses credible encouragement to convince the student that they are capable of undertaking an action
  • assistance in reducing any negative physiological reactions (e.g., ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, anxiety) by developing a supportive learning environment in which there is a focus on learning, understanding and skill development.


To increase motivation in underachieving gifted learners, the following formula must be taken into account (Brophy, 2010, p. 15):

Motivation chart. .

Brophy (2010) notes that if a task is either too easy or too hard, then learners are not motivated to complete it. Usually, learners are more motivated to complete real-world tasks that are purposeful and have a real audience. Teachers need to set learning experiences just above their gifted learners’ abilities. This means that while they do need to ‘reach’ for success, they still expect to succeed in the task. Teachers need to create authentic learning experiences that learners value and see as applicable in the real world.

Many schools in New Zealand are using some form of student-led or three-way conferencing to report to, and share information with, parents. A conversation between the learners, their parents and teacher is ideal for many gifted and talented learners who enjoy the opportunity to share their growth as a learner. Learners may accept accountability and responsibility for their progress and achievement and demonstrate a growing understanding of their development as independent learners. Find more information about student-led conferences here.