Characteristics Of Gifted Underachievers Education Essay

This selective review of literature aims to establish the characteristics of gifted underachievers, know the causative factors contributing to their underachievement, understand various strategies schools and teachers could adopt in reversing student underachievement, and present the implications of the aforementioned.

Characteristics of gifted underachievers

It is important for educators to have a clear understanding as to who are considered gifted underachievers in the classroom. Amazingly, the number of highly intellectual students who had not achieved well in school is as high as 50% (Schultz, 2005). Comprising this group is a large population of underserved or neglected talented students by gifted programs. If this number is not provided much needed attention, it is imperative therefore that this issue has to be addressed. A survey of existing literature seemed to disagree not only on the definition of underachievement but the legitimacy of categorizing gifted underachievement as an academic behavior. The controversial study in Moon (2004) sent shockwaves to the scientific community by stating that some researchers believed underachievement is simplistically attributed to test error. Yet scientists like Rimm have devoted their entire professional careers reversing underachievement.

Chaffey (2004) emphasized that the underachievement definition adopted by the teacher will serve as basis for identifying underachievers and consequently the students receiving appropriate plan of action. Having successfully recognized gifted underachievers in the classroom will allow teachers’ expectations to be shifted upwards as research strongly suggests that improved academic performance in underachieving students is linked to high teacher expectations. Various studies point to its multi-faceted nature which has sometimes muddied educational experts in the field; but regardless of origin, underachievement is defined as the discrepancy between expected and actual achievement.

Morando (2003) of the Columbiana Co. Educational Service Center said that gifted underachievers tend to be disorganized and their schoolwork is either incomplete or missing. Though IQ scores are very high compared to the average, there is a consistent decline in academic ability and exhibit disinterest in attending school. Moreover, the student may also be a loner, has low self-esteem, emotionally frustrated, and is economically disadvantaged.

Lau and Chan (2001) described the motivational characteristics of underachieving junior high school students in Hong Kong after subjecting them to various measures namely Raven Progressive Matrices Test, vocabulary test, standardized achievement test, Marsh self description questionnaire, Causal dimension scale, Eccles and Wigfield’s expectancy value model, and Motivated strategies for learning questionnaire. The results demonstrated low academic

self-concept, poor attainment value in learning as well as deficiencies in utilizing effective learning methods. The study also disproved the conclusion of Western researches that HK underachievers demonstrate maladaptive attribution patterns.

Chow, Chow, and Ku-Yu (2003) conducted a case study involving five underachieving gifted students and used Whitmore’s checklist in characterizing their behaviors. The research yielded the following characteristics in the students: high external locus of control, negative attitude towards school, experience difficulty in establishing social relationships, set unworkable goals, attention deficit inside the classroom, resistance in following instructions, has a very varied range of interests, exhibits aggressive behavior, possesses low self-esteem, avoidant in trying out new activities, dedication in self-selected homework and assignments, dissatisfaction with achievement, dislike of memorization and drill, poor school work, and significant gap between quality of written and oral work.

Dixon, Craven, and Martin (2006) recognized underachievement as a problem in some gifted children. The aim of the study is compare the affective characteristics of achieving and underachieving gifted children. The sample population was divided into three- high, moderate, and under achievers. Three constructs were measured in two occasions- academic self-concept, self-expectations of future academic achievement and academic locus of control. Of all the three variables, significant differences were noted in self-expectations for future achievement.

Researchers warned of the need to accurately identify underachieving gifted students in Hong Kong. Phillipson and Tse (2007) compared the effectiveness of three underachievement estimation methods namely: absolute split, simple difference, and regression methods. The last two find more application in the identification of underachievers in all ability levels. However, all three are dependent on invariant, additive, and unidimensional measurements. With modern measurement theory utilizing Rasch measurement models being introduced, satisfying all requirements specified is possible. The study investigated 957 Primary 5 students in Hong Kong asked to accomplish a mathematics achievement and Ravens Progressive Matrices test so that proportion of underachievement can be estimated across all ability levels. The Rasch models were applied to create the measurement scales for partial credit and dichotomous responses per variable, correspondingly, and students assigned to each scale in accordance to their responses. Because results were based on invariant measurement scales between individuals, identifying underachievement can be considered objective instead of sample-dependent.

Causes of underachievement

This literature review will reveal considerable divergence in opinion on the reasons for underachievement in students especially those who are intellectually gifted. But how can an intellectually gifted student underachieve? Implicitly defined, a gifted student is one whose intelligence level is very high and consistently performs in these high levels (Clark, 2002). Underachievement, on the contrary, is associated with failure to perform well in school. The mismatch of the terms, giftedness and underachievement is puzzling and do not blend very well together. Similar to an oxymoron, both are polar opposites in the educational spectrum. It is no surprise that this phenomenon in intellectually gifted individuals remains a mystery to be solved and there have been several attempts at dissecting its root causes. Suffice to say that underachievement is caused by factors both in school and family (Sousa, 2003).

As to when underachievement in gifted students begin, Reiss (2000) offered an explanation. Commonly, underachievement commences at late elementary levels then in junior high school and earlier onset occurs in males than females. Findings indicate that this stage in the educational careers of students is meaningful for teachers since the problem manifest more visibly at this stage. For instance, the amount of assigned tasks or homework increases in later elementary and junior high school levels, and students refusing to accomplish homework or do it with little attention or care may be identified. Some may easily achieve without effort during the early school years but fail when they counter the challenges of increased homework, real production or strenuous effort are considered underachievers.

Reis and McCoach (2000) cited lack of motivation from parents and teachers could negatively impact academic achievement in primary, secondary and tertiary students. Thus, Whitmore and Rand (2000) recommended that underachieving intellectually gifted children needed motivation from teachers because of discrepancies in the student’s learning style and educator’s instructional method.

A number of school-related factors were responsible for the occurrence of underachievement in gifted children (Chow, Chow, & Ku-Yu, 2003). First, there is high dominance of the teacher/adult control during classroom discussion and the unchallenging and unrewarding curriculum which further differentiate the high from the low achievers. Second, there is the predominant criticism culture in learning and failure syndrome and underachievers find themselves in higher vulnerability. Third is more focus by teachers and administrators on overall development of the whole school and less attention in addressing the problems confronting underachieving gifted. Fourth is the overly rigid and inflexible curriculum and the whole academic policy which does not provide an avenue for the development of differentiated integrative programs in both informal and formal educational settings. Fifth, both parents and teachers use more of the extrinsic motivational strategies rather than intrinsic which appear to work in favor of the underachieving gifted. Sixth, they are studying in a highly competitive social environment and both parents and teachers show more concern on attaining high test scores instead of the socio-emotional needs and learning attitude of students. Seventh, there are no differentiated provisions for fulfilling learning needs. Lastly, underachieving gifted students had not earned respect from teachers and continuously neglected when compared to those achieving highly in class.

Channey (2004) made specific courses of action for remediating underachievement in gifted students depending on the factors identified such as low self-efficacy, forced choice dilemma, undiagnosed or diagnosed specific learning disability, dysfunctional perfectionism, boredom, and dominant visual-spatial learners. Another is predominance of failure syndrome and

Morris and Mather (2008) observed that underachievement may not only stem from learning disability alone but from a string of environmental and intra-individual factors like slow-paced and chronically challenging classrooms, unrealistic familial expectations, conforming with peer pressure, attention deficit hypersensitivity disorder, failure in setting realistic goals, rebelliousness, social immaturity, anxiety, and depression. Peers often affect adolescent behavior and this may adversely affect academic achievement when negative peer influences are encountered. Maladaptive motivational characteristics may also contribute to underachievement in gifted students and they more likely do not demonstrate resilience or adopt coping mechanisms that overcome negative experiences encountered in school, community, and home.

Effectiveness of strategies aimed at reversing underachievement

Voluminous accounts have been published and documented regarding the profile of gifted underachievers and the complex causative factors explaining this phenomenon. However, understanding its root causes and identifying gifted underachievers forms the first step. While it is necessary to apply the appropriate interventions if educators attempt to remedy this problem, it is logical that proposed interventions have taken different directions. Regarding the creation of a definition and investigating the factors of gifted underachievement, no single intervention holds the answer to effectively reverse poor academic performance in gifted students. As a matter of fact, Reis and McCoach (2000) described these effective interventions “inconsistent and inconclusive” (p. 202). Interventions may either be counseling or instructional.

The aim of counseling interventions is change any family or personal dynamics that influence gifted students’ underachievement. Instead of forcing gifted students to perform better in school, counseling help set goals and help modify habits that present road blocks to success. While counseling interventions seem to baffle the scientific community as to its effectiveness, the Trifocal Model adopted in schools had limited some success in addressing underachievement in gifted students. The foci of the six-step Trifocal Model are modifications in school and family, correcting deficiencies, identification, changing expectations and communication (Schultz, 2005). However, Peterson (2006) highlighted that the unique emotional and social needs of gifted underachievers are accorded limited attention in a number of school counseling training programs.

As school counselors, the role is to be a student advocate and a liaison between various professionals catering to the individual in the school system. Counselors occupy a unique place bridging the work of parents, specialists, and teachers in meeting the individual needs of the student. Counselors could likewise provide a supportive school climate by establishing counseling groups especially for gifted underachievers in which issues are normalized and earn others’ support. The counselor can also be of assistance to the student in coping with emotional, social, and intellectual needs during the course of their educational careers. They can also promote in developing an accurate and realistic self-concept while holistically developing the student’s potential (Bailey, 2007).

Instructional interventions on the other hand focus on strategies in creating more favorable climates for gifted underachievers. Classrooms may have small teacher-student ratios and teachers employ less conventional teaching methods. Students are given more freedom in controlling their own learning. Unfortunately, the strategy is not effective in reversing gifted underachievement due to time constraints, limited resources and physical space, and non-compliance of school districts (Schultz, 2005).

Mentoring male gifted underachievers was examined by Hebert and Olenchak (2000) and revealed the influential role of a significant adult on the young learner. The importance of mentors was reinforced by their nonjudgmental and open-minded characteristics, personalized and consistent emotional/social support being extended, and interest and strength-based interventions that overturn underachievement. These findings underscore that mentorship is critically effective on underachievement regardless of socio-economic background, environment, and age.

Niederdeppe (2009) assessed the effect of a theater arts intervention on underachieving gifted Latin American middle schoolers on academic performance and school engagement. Two teachers administered the ten-week after school program to a group of 18 research participants. The action research project changed after receiving feedback from the participants and teachers. A comparison was made to the control composed of 16 students in terms of cooperation, work habits, and academic marks. Only school engagement changed significantly while academic achievement did not increase.


It is the hope of the Hong Kong Education Department to ensure that educational needs of students are met so their potentials are maximally developed regardless of their ability level. Thus, the ethos of fully harnessing students’ potentials should be stressed to every school personnel prior to the drafting of related educational policies. Before this is done, a consensus should be achieved amongst colleagues. The school should also develop and share a development plan that is well-structured and true to its commitment of developing all types of students whether underachievers, average, or gifted learners. Staff working out this policy framework should collaboratively plan and reflect on salient areas particularly defining underachievement, and methods of identifying and recognizing them, and strategies in approaching classroom instruction and learning. At the level of the school, the very core of improving is acknowledging the reality of a centralized policy which could exploit synergistic relations and creativity in the system and build the supportive organizational conditions promoting enhancements (Hopkins, 2001). In the classroom, teachers should first identify then select students recommended to participate in enrichment activities and extension work currently existing in schools. These aforementioned activities should be regarded as a way of catering to individual differences in learning particularly among the gifted. Since the school personnel is aware of this predicament among the gifted, the government should have immediate resources and plan of action geared towards helping them to fully understand the philosophy and background of gifted education, teach them how to recognize and develop children’s abilities and effectively work in curbing academic underachievement in gifted students. To serve as a preventive measure in the long term, the rudiments governing gifted education should be incorporated in pre-service teacher training curriculum so newly hired teachers are better equipped prior to graduation.

Although there are schools where a policy for all students is currently in order, either regarding gifted education as distinct or integral of the whole curriculum planning, respect for tapping gifted students’ potentials should be taken into account when planning the curriculum. To ensure that quality education is delivered, there is a need to have an effective nomination system of early detection of more capable students to match teachers’ work with needs of the students. Therefore, curriculum should be malleable and flexible, permitting extension and enhancement of core learning contents and development of a supplemental pullout program outside the the formal curriculum. The curriculum should be carefully and thoroughly reviewed to ensure that it is immersed to the three higher order thinking skills, personal-social competence and creativity for the entire student body as basis for fostering giftedness and talent among youngsters. Hence, it is highly commendable for the school administration to review the effectiveness of currently employed enhancement and strengthening activities in the school curriculum and likewise school activities in all student ability levels. As continuous improvement, apart from organizing a team of educators tasked at overseeing quality of specific programs, policy design and curriculum planning should undergo constant review so that momentum is sustained.

Convention tells us that effective student learning is equated to a range of examination results and test scores. But to David Hopkins (2001), powerful learning goes beyond mere numbers and figures. It is a challenge to “find ways of raising levels of attainment while at the same time helping students become more powerful learners, by expanding and making articulate their repertoire of learning strategies” (Hopkins, 2001, p. 71). As reviewed in the previous pages, gifted underachievers suffer from poor academic performance, unsatisfactory school work, low self-esteem and negatively perceive schooling. Consequently, it is imperative that strategies for educational change should lay its foundation on adapting to the management arrangement of the school supporting learning and teaching and modifying classroom practice. Because exceptionally gifted students find unstructured activities to be non-motivating and unappealing, teachers need to realign classroom activities on the students’ learning styles. They should also creatively develop teaching methods that sensitively challenge their interaction with students. Hinged on the early work of Whitmore, the conditions needed to be satisfied in order for effective learning to transpire is having a classroom environment without threat of failure and allow freedom of expression, supportive peer group, good teacher-student relationships, and child-centered approach.

Using the study of Chow, Chow, and Ku-Yu (2003) as reference, students in the case study were identified accidentally. Both parents and teachers had no prior knowledge that underachievement among the gifted exists and therefore were unaware of the potentials they have. In helping gifted underachievers restore their confidence towards learning, first, they must feel respected and accepted in the community and family. It is indispensable for teachers to clearly see their roles, nature of underachievement, and specific challenges encountered by these students. Besides, an important step is recognizing how parents of these students could be a contributory influence in shaping curriculum and classroom instruction.

A supportive family environment, as demonstrated by research, adds value in accelerating positive development in gifted underachievers should they choose independent learning at home. Moreover, a parents-teachers association can be tapped as a resource in collaboratively linking the efforts of parents and teachers which ultimately improve student learning outcomes.

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