Is It Underachievement or Underlearning?

By Diane Heacox, Ed.D., coauthor of Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics (Revised & Updated Edition)

Is It Underachievement or Underlearning?Underachievement amongst gifted learners has long been a concern for educators. Underachievement is defined as a severe and persistent discrepancy between potential (innate ability, gifts, aptitudes) and performance (achievement, grades, classroom performance). Recent conversations and collaborations with Eleonoor van Gerven of the Slim! Educational Institute brought underlearning to my attention.

Consider: Which gifted students are underachieving by basis of their differences in readiness, interest, or learning preference? Which students are underlearning based on the curriculum offered to them?

Underlearning happens when restrictions are placed on gifted students’ learning. These restrictions might include:

  • Limiting, inflexible curriculum that fails to provide the pace, depth, complexity, and rigor essential for gifted learners
  • Lack of purposeful interventions by classroom teachers
  • Inability or unwillingness to make instructional decisions based on preassessment and formative data either because these are not available or are underutilized
  • A physical learning environment that lacks support, collaboration, and active engagement and does not share responsibility for managing learning tasks
  • Age peers who may not understand learning differences and engage in competitive practices with classmates
  • Families who do not help their child set realistic goals, who compare their child to others, or who do not support learning in positive ways

Drs. Eleonoor van Gerven’s research, writing, and work in Holland has resulted in greater teacher understanding of underlearning. Her insightful ecological system of student achievement factors asks us to consider the interactions between the teacher, the curriculum, the physical environment, peers, and family. One or more of these factors may result in underlearning. This blog post will focus specifically on interactions between the student, the teacher, and the curriculum.

Underachievement or Underlearning?

In underachievement, we consider what the student is not demonstrating: their motivation for learning or tasks that are missing, slow to come in, or not attempted, as well as those lacking quality. We are often puzzled when gifted learners do not do exceptional work. Underachievers are gifted learners who exhibit promise for extraordinary performance but fall short.

In contrast, underlearning can be invisible. How do we know the knowledge, skills, and processes a student could achieve if they were offered? How far and deep could the student reach? What innovations or accomplishments are going unpursued? How do teachers know what they may not know about a student’s learning capacity?

Consider the four stages of development as students learn (Maslow, 1954):

  1. Unconscious incompetence (I do not know what I do not know.)
  2. Conscious incompetence (I am aware of what I do not know.)
  3. Conscious competence (I am aware that I can do this.)
  4. Unconscious competence (I just do this. Why don’t other students get what is so obvious to me?)

For most students, learning takes place in the transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. When gifted learners succeed in a task because their knowledge or skill set is already at the unconscious competence level, they are not learning.

Underlearning occurs when gifted learners are not offered learning in their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), when the curriculum primarily offers tasks in their comfort zone.

Many students are already demonstrating conscious or even unconscious competence and are not stimulated to develop new knowledge and skills. We simply accept their high achievements without considering whether the child has really learned something by taking on the tasks.

The Teacher and Learner Connection

It is expected that during the learning process, students make mistakes, ask questions, and experience uncertainty. A teacher expects this to be the case for most students. When those moments of mistakes or uncertainty happen, the teacher willfully intervenes in a way that changes students’ knowledge, skills, or behaviors. The educator provides additional instruction to these students and supports and directly encourages them to try, cope with failure and disappointment, persevere, and celebrate success (van Gerven, 2015).

With gifted learners, this is not always the case. Drs. van Gerven cautions educators that if students are able to show 100 percent mastery immediately without putting forth any effort, then students are not being challenged at a level commensurate with their personal potential. When learning becomes challenging for gifted students, they make mistakes and feel uncertain as other students do.

A teacher’s reaction to an academically gifted student not being there immediately may be to excuse the student from the challenge or offer a less challenging task so the student will not make mistakes and can complete work independently. This reaction to struggling gifted learners is unlike the response provided to other students, who receive additional instruction or support when they struggle.

Unintentionally, the teacher may be offering tasks that are below the personal learning potential of gifted learners. On a consistent basis, this “dumbing down” engages gifted learners in tasks much like those their less-talented classmates complete. This may reinforce student attitudes toward underlearning. (When I do not achieve, I get an easier task. That task might let me feel good about myself because I score within the top rank of my class. However, it did not take any effort to do it, and I was not stimulated to develop new knowledge and skills.)

An educator who does this, even unconsciously, stimulates underlearning. Gifted students need to make mistakes, experience uncertainty, and be allowed time to develop their academic talents. Otherwise, the result is underlearning. Drs. van Gerven suggests teachers ask, “If the student does not achieve and meet my expectations, who is the underachiever? Have I done the right thing to ensure the development of the student’s potential and talents?”

Raising the Curriculum Ceilings for Gifted Learners

In considering whether our curriculum and instructional practices may result in underlearning for gifted students, ask the following questions about your existing curriculum:

  1. Is the curriculum content related to broad-based issues, themes, or problems?
  2. Does the curriculum extend beyond enrichment to curriculum extensions and enhancements?
  3. Does the curriculum allow for an accelerated pace?
  4. Does the curriculum provide access to content, ideas, perspectives, and viewpoints not bound by grade/age level?
  5. Does the curriculum represent the depth (digging deeper) and complexity (breadth of thinking and doing) essential for gifted/talented learners but inappropriate for other students?
  6. Does the curriculum engage students in more sophisticated instructional strategies (e.g., Socratic dialogue, case studies)?
  7. Does the curriculum actively engage and nurture creative thinking?
  8. Are experts in a field of study or mentors (face-to-face or online) used to provide authentic and meaningful connections to real-world applications?
  9. Does the curriculum offer personalized learning opportunities that include self-selection and an ability to act on interests and passions?
  10. Is technology used in ways that encourage analytical thinking and innovation?
  11. Do products, performances, and presentations focus on innovation and represent new ideas, perspectives, thoughts, and insights?
  12. Does the curriculum engage students in experiences that help them develop self-understanding, such as recognizing and using one’s talents, becoming self-directed and self-regulated, and appreciating one’s uniqueness?

There is no single way to address underachievement or underlearning, since gifted students differ from one another, and thus individualized interventions must be designed and implemented. Referring to the student’s ecological system may give us some clues as to who or what is contributing to underachievement or underlearning.

It may also mean that teachers must change their typical teaching/learning methods or remove established curriculum ceilings. As teachers, we must also choose to consciously support gifted and talented learners as they take on new challenges and stretch their competencies.

Want to know more about underachievement and underlearning? Attend the NAGC Annual Conference in November 2019 or the ASCD Annual Conference in March 2020 for presentations by Dr. Heacox and Drs. van Gerven.

Diane WeacoxDiane Heacox, Ed.D., is a consultant and professional development trainer focusing on strategies to increase learning success for all students. She is professor emerita at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a national and international consultant and professional development trainer to both public and private schools on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. Dr. Heacox has taught at both elementary and secondary school levels and has served as a gifted education teacher and administrator, as well as an instructional specialist in public education.

Dr. Heacox was recognized by the Minnesota Educators of Gifted and Talented as a Friend of the Gifted for service to gifted education. She is also in the University of St. Thomas Educators Hall of Fame for her contributions to the field of education.

Follow Diane on Twitter: @dgheacox

Free Spirit books by Diane Heacox:

Differentiation For Gifted LearnersDifferentiating Instruction in the Regular ClassroomMaking Differentiation A Habit


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Maslow, A. H. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954.
van Gerven, E. “Preventing and Overcoming Underachievement in Gifted Primary School Students.” Tempo 38(3) (2017).
van Gerven, E. Knapzak Praktijkgidsen: De cirkel van zorg voor intern begel. Nieuwolda: the Netherlands, 2015.
Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

This entry was posted in Gifted Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply