Understanding Underachievement in Gifted Learners

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Understanding Underachievement in Gifted LearnersWe’ve all had them—students who don’t produce to the level of their capabilities. It can be frustrating, annoying, and overall confusing. Underachievers, often gifted or advanced learners, are sending us a message. Our job is to figure out what that message is.

Underachievement is when students have a discrepancy between their potential (whether innate ability or talent) and their performance. As defined in the book I wrote with Diane Heacox, Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics, underachievers can be either nonproducers or selective performers. Nonproducers refuse to do the daily work or homework but still perform well on final assessments, whereas selective performers pick and choose what they will do and where they will put their energies.

To help you understand where underachievement may come from, let me offer another way to view these students—and ways to shift their focus. Two factors determine how students learn. One is the student’s achievement orientation. Achievement orientation refers to how the learner interprets the tasks to be accomplished. If students interpret a task to have little meaning or value, they will avoid doing the work. If they find the task relevant, interesting, and challenging, they will approach the work.

The second factor is goal orientation. Goal orientation refers to whether the learner is driven by mastery or performance. Mastery-oriented students work to build and refine skills and strategies, whereas performance-oriented students work to show skills and strategies. “Students with mastery orientations seek to improve their competence. Those with performance orientations seek to prove their competence” (Schraw, G. 1998) (emphasis added).

When you consider the two learning factors together, you get four types of learning orientations:

  • Mastery-Approach Orientation: Learners work hard to achieve their personal best
  • Mastery-Avoidance Orientation: Learners are comfortable with being “good enough”
  • Performance-Approach Orientation: Learners compete with others to be the best
  • Performance-Avoidance Orientation: Learners fear being defined by their lack of ability

It’s unlikely that underachievers have a mastery-approach orientation, as these learners love to challenge themselves and put forth effort and are intrinsically motivated. Some may be mastery avoiders, in that they don’t feel a sense of urgency or commitment to the work, or they may simply be content with being “good enough.” Underachievers who are performance-approach oriented may find that they do not possess the skills to be better than others, so they do little or nothing. The performance avoiders simply won’t do the work for many reasons.

For Mastery Avoiders

  • Decipher whether the learners are conserving energy by putting more effort toward a subject they really enjoy or simply being lazy (“I’ve gotten good grades all along without having to work at it. What makes this assignment any different?”).
  • Help them understand the value of the work and how it can add meaning to future accomplishments.
  • Assist them in finding interest in the work or connecting it to other topics.
  • Have them work with others of similar abilities and interests—which may spark them to work more collaboratively.
  • Show them their progress and successes—even small ones.

For Performance Approachers

  • Since these learners are extrinsically motivated, start using more descriptive feedback to guide them toward intrinsic motivation.
  • Praise their efforts more than their achievements to help them shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
  • Show them how their competence is growing through each learning activity.
  • Differentiate activities to include learners’ personal interests.
  • Have them work in collaborative groups where the focus is on partnership rather than competition.

For Performance Avoiders

  • Build their self-esteem and self-efficacy by highlighting what they are good at.
  • Celebrate accomplishments, even small ones.
  • Have them keep records of their accomplishments—again highlighting their progress.
  • Differentiate activities based on learners’ readiness, interests, and ways they like to perform so they can find success.
  • Help them understand that making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process.

Finally, one of the most effective interventions with underachievers is building strong interpersonal relationships with them. Many factors go into the development of underachievement. There may be issues of depression, alienation, or control. Getting to know the whole child and building a trusting relationship can be valuable in finding out how to reverse the effects of underachievement.

For more on understanding underachievement, see Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. For more on understanding learning orientations, see Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

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Schraw, G. “Promoting General Metacognitive Awareness.” Instructional Science 26, no. 1 (1998): 113–125.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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4 Responses to Understanding Underachievement in Gifted Learners

  1. Pingback: Underachievement Among Gifted Learners: An Interview with Dr. Nielsen Pereira and Ophélie Desmet | Free Spirit Publishing Blog

  2. Pingback: SAT 11/4 | Dr. Richard Cash delivers Keynote at 2017 MCGT Conference - St Croix Valley Gifted

  3. millie says:

    Gifted under achievers believe they HAVE mastered the subject and there is no need to demonstrate that for others in the method that the teacher prefers. But, they may have set their own personal goal too high for them to actually achieve and end up turning I’m sub part work simply because something had to be turned in.
    I believe gifted students need to be both challenged and equipped with the organizational skills to demonstrate mastery on their own terms.

  4. Patricia Willems says:

    Having a relationship with underachievers is very important. When a teacher or parent works WITH the student to help them find their passion you get somewhere. The 4 categories were explained clearly and will aid conversation with the student.

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