Underachievement and how to recognise it in able pupils

Underachievement and how to recognise it in able pupils

Schools and teachers spend a lot of time and energy trying to ensure that pupils "achieve".  What exactly this word means is up for debate but in order to ensure that pupils "achieve", whatever that might mean, schools are on the lookout for those pupils that might be considered to be "underachieving".  Underachievement is generally accepted as being the inability or failure to perform according to one's age or ability.  However this definition leaves us with a problem - how exactly do you recognise underachievement in your school or class?

SNAP has as one of its four core concerns underachievement in able pupils: those who may - for a variety of reasons - do less well in school than could be expected e.g. disaffected individuals; boys.  Teachers often turn to test  results for a "diagnosis" of underachievement.  Standardised tests such as  IQ-type  tests, National Tests certainly give us some information that might be of use in a school situation.  However if a pupil has been disengaged from the testing process then the results may still not highlight what the pupil is capable of.  Furthermore, such tests do not offer us an accurate indicator of ability in subject areas.  We therefore need to ensure that we employ a range of methods when trying to identify  pupils who are underachieving.  A teacher's views are important in this process although this relies on the teacher having an understanding of what it means to be able in the first place.  There is a danger here as preconceptions about pupils can creep into the equation.  We have to be aware of our own biases and attitudes.

What does underachievement look like?

As with much of education there are no ready made answers to that question!  Underachievement will vary from pupil to pupil.  Diane Montgomery has done a lot of work in this area and has produced a "characteristics checklist".  As with all checklists it should be used with caution but Montgomery (1996) suggests that if five or more of these indicators are present then teachers should consider that the pupil might be "underachieving" and should decide to explore this a little further.

  • Inconsistent pattern of achievement in schoolwork subjects
  • Inconsistent patterns of achievement within a subject area
  • Discrepancy between ability and achievements, with ability much higher
  • Lack of concentration
  • Daydreaming
  • Clowning and other work-avoidance strategies
  • Poor study skills
  • Poor study habits
  • Non-completion or avoidance of assignments
  • Refusal to write anything down
  • Other activity or restlessness
  • Overassertive and aggressive or over submissive and timid social behaviour
  • Inability to form and maintain social relationships with peers
  • Inability to deal with failures
  • Avoidance of success
  • Lack of insight about self and others
  • Poor literacy skills
  • Endless talking, avoiding doing
  • Membership of stereotyped 'minority' group eg not Caucasian, male, middle class etc

Able underachievers would appear to be at an even greater risk of being overlooked by the education system.  When talking with teachers and students SNAP discovered that many felt confident about identifying less able pupils, including underachievers but that they still had difficulty is in knowing how to identify more able pupils and particularly more able pupils who were underachieving.  Added to this difficulty that the culture within some schools and communities does not accept or value high achievement in all areas of the curriculum. Couple this with feelings of "I don't want to be a nerd or geek!" and we can begin to understand the pressures on highly able pupils to underachieve.  When we're thinking about ability it is important to recognise that we are often assessing the latent ability of an individual pupil.  That means we need to identify pupils with the potential to achieve and not just those who are already "flying high".  If we are adopting this model then it is likely that there will be pupils who demonstrate significant discrepancies between their latent ability and their predicted performance.

Things to think about

There are a number of areas that schools need to consider if they are going to address the needs of the underachiever.

1.  The impact of motivational and emotional factors might include pupils:

  • having fear of failure and/or success (Montgomery, 1996; McLean, 2003)
  • being unmotivated to achieve in school despite having high self concept (Montgomery, 1996; McLean, 2003)
  • having a lack of clear personal goals and values (Dweck, 1995, 2000 ; Butler-Pol, 1987)
  • blaming others and acts of chance (Montgomery, 1986)

Of course one of the difficulties with underachievement is that it can become a self fulfilling prophecy and thus a downward spiral develops.  Telling such pupils that they should be doing better or that more was expected of them may in fact contribute to that downward spiral.  Joan Freeman's (1991) work is interesting here as she discovered that some pupils who were identified as gifted were worried that they may not be worthy of the title.  When this was the case, they avoided any tasks at which they might fail thus falling further behind with their work.  Carol Dweck's (1995) work also suggests that avoiding failure can lead to underachievement.

2.  The impact of the quality of learning.  Underachievers may

  • Tend towards perfectionism and string self criticism
  • Not perform well in tests
  • Hand in unfinished or poor quality work
  • Avoid new activities
  • Underachieve in core curricular areas such as maths and language
  • Prefer to work alone
  • Have unrealistically high or low goals for themselves
  • Have few friends or have difficulty making friends
  • Prefer creative approaches to work over memory, mastery or rote learning tasks
  • Have difficulty concentrating on a task for periods of time

                                                                                                      (McClelland et al, 1993)

It should also be borne in mind that pupils may be experiencing what Montgomery (1996) calls double exceptionality.  In other words in addition to being more able, the pupil may have hearing or visual impairments, dyslexia, Asperger's Syndrome, developmental dysphasia etc.

3.  The impact of the curriculum on learning.  Pupils may

  • Expect but not receive new work
  • Feel the tasks they are asked to complete do not reflect their abilities
  • Be asked to repeat old work
  • Perceive previous work undertaken has not been acknowledged
  • Feel there is a lack of continuity between stages and or schools

The good news is that there is much a teacher can do in relation to the curriculum.  In particular Curriculum for Excellence would seem to offer opportunities for teachers to develop a more creative, engaging and meaningful curriculum.

 Curriculum for Excellence

4.  The impact of the teacher on the pupil.  Teachers can

  • Offer appropriate and targeted support
  • Support and develop a pupil's self concept
  • Design tasks where pupils can work independently
  • Help pupils to experience the joy that comes with experiencing learning

So what can schools do?

Firstly schools have to decide how they are going to develop their system for collecting data about pupil's abilities. Once this is in place a school can then begin to think about which pupils may fall into the category of underachiever. Barry Teare's (1997) book helpfully suggests the use of a referral sheet.  One thing is clear; we should rely on a range of data and not just one format. SNAP (2000) discovered that schools in their study relied on teacher observation in the identification process.  Whilst this is an extremely important aspect, just as with an IQ score, it cannot be used in isolation.

The gathering of this data will allow a school to identify clusters of pupils.  This can be helpful if, for example, it shows trends.  A school might discover that more boys are identified than girls in particular subject areas.  This information allows the school to find out more about particular issues related to this, for example, gender.

Taking cognisance of the above alongside issues such as a background, peer groups, school ethos and values allows the school to systematically address any areas for development.  Barry Teare's (1997) work may be helpful as schools grapple with these issues.

Schools will constantly be reflecting on practice but there is perhaps a need for schools to ensure that staff have the opportunity to reflect on practice and to talk to and learn from each other in relation to pupils "who could do better".  Strategies in place in one class may also work well in another.  It is also worth exploring cross-curricular issues such as thinking skills, study skills, goal setting etc.  Schools might also consider the use of whole school approaches such as the work of Wallace (2002) or Renzulli and Reis (1993).

Guidance systems within a school should alert all to any vulnerable pupils.  Thus schools need to ensure that there is a sympathetic approach to support from pupils.  An effective system will by its very existence support pupils who are underachieving.

Whatever we do, we must strive to support our pupils as they grapple with learning.  While we want to set high expectations they must be realistic.  Many "successful" people (e.g., Einstein, Mark Twain) report that they did not "succeed" at school.  With the right support we can ensure that we support pupils who are underachieving and do not leave their learning to chance.  How many Einstein's did we miss because we didn't offer the right support?

Montgomery (1996)

McLean (2003)

Dweck (2000)

Teare (1997)