Promoting a positive achievement attitude with gifted and talented students
Siegle, D. & McCoach, D.
Excerpted from: The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know?, pp. 6-7, 29-30
Prufrock Press

This book chapter by Del Siegle and D. Betsy McCoach discusses techniques that can be used to promote achievement in highly intelligent students. Underachievement issues and causes are listed and traits of achievers are explained. Teachers and parents can help children achieve by using the interventions listed in this chapter.

Why one gifted student achieves while another does not remains an enigma. Although the underachievement of gifted students has been the subject of much inquiry and debate (Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Reis & McCoach, 2000; Van Boxtel & Monks, 1992; Whitmore, 1986), very few controlled studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of specific interventions designed to reverse that underachievement. As we define the national educational agenda of the 21st century, "student achievement is of great interest to ... national policy makers because it is so closely correlated with the productive skills students eventually bring to the labor market" (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2000, p. 50). The underachievement of gifted students represents a loss of valuable human resources for the nation, as well as an unrealized fulfillment for the individual. Determining why some high-ability students demonstrate low levels of achievement is difficult because underachievement occurs for many different reasons (Reis & McCoach; Rimm, 1995; Whitmore).

Causes of Underachievement

Reis and McCoach (in press) suggested that the underachievement of bright students occurs for one of three basic reasons:

  1. An apparent underachievement problem masks more serious physical, cognitive, or emotional issues such as learning disabilities, attention deficits, emotional disturbances, psychological disorders, or other health impairments (Busch & Nuttall, 1995; Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Gallagher, 1991; Lupart & Pyryt, 1996; Silverman, 1991). In this case, the treatment of academic underachievement should be secondary to the treatment of the primary disorder.
  2. The underachievement is symptomatic of a mismatch between the student and his or her school environment (Emerick, 1992; Siegle, 2000).
  3. The underachievement results from a personal characteristic such as low self-motivation, low self-regulation, or low self-efficacy (McCoach & Siegle, 2001; Reis & McCoach, 2000; Siegle, 2000; Whitmore, 1980).

Personal Characteristics Associated With Underachievement

Here we focus on underachievement resulting from the personal characteristics of the student. However, we acknowledge that academic underachievement can sometimes be indicative of a more serious physical, mental, or emotional issue. For example. Moon and Hall (1998) noted that learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, hearing impairment, nontraditional learning styles, emotional problems, or any combination of these issues can contribute to underachievement. Therefore, we recommend that all underachieving gifted students be screened for a wide variety of physical, mental, or emotional problems before making a student's underachievement the primary focus of attention.

Once educators rule out these more serious problems, they can explore the role that students' perceptions, attitudes, and motivation are playing in their underachievement. For example, McCoach and Siegle (2001) compared 122 gifted achievers with 56 gifted underachievers in 28 different high schools. The results of an analysis suggested that gifted underachievers differed from achievers on four factors: attitudes toward teachers, attitudes toward school, goal valuation, and motivation/self-regulation. In addition, they found that gifted underachievers displayed greater variability than the gifted high achievers on four factors: academic self-perceptions,-attitudes toward school, goal valuation, and motivation/self-regulation. The results of a multidimensional scaling analysis suggested two separate profiles of gifted underachievers: One set of underachievers valued school goals and displayed near-average self-reported motivation/self-regulation, but reported negative attitudes toward teachers and school, while another set displayed positive attitudes toward teachers and school, but did not value school goals and reported low motivation/self-regulation.

Personal Characteristics Associated With Achievement: An Avenue for Intervention

Knowing that the factors listed above differentiate gifted underachievers from gifted achievers and underachievers from each other provides researchers with a possible new line of inquiry: designing interventions to change students' attitudes and perceptions in the hope of reversing their patterns of underachievement. Guidance for the design of such interventions comes from research in the field of educational psychology on four characteristics of achievers: self-efficacy, environmental perceptions, goal orientation, and self-regulation. Generally, achievers are self-efficacious. They have high academic self-perceptions and they believe that they have the ability to perform well (Bandura, 1986; Schunk, 1984). Second, they trust their academic environment and expect that they can succeed in it. They expect that this environment is conducive to their performance of academic tasks and they have positive attitudes toward their teachers and school. Third, they find school meaningful (Atkinson, 1964). They enjoy school or believe that what they are doing in school will produce beneficial outcomes for them. Finally, they implement self-regulating strategies where they set realistic expectations and implement appropriate strategies to complete their goals successfully.

We explore each of these personal factors associated with achievement in this chapter with an emphasis on how these characteristics can be developed in underachievers. While much of the research on these factors is based on studies with a general student population, there is evidence that interventions designed to enhance these characteristics can help gifted underachievers at the middle and secondary level (Baum, Renzulli, & Hebert, 1995; Emerick, 1992; McCoach & Siegle, 2001). In each section below, we briefly review research on one of these achievement characteristics and suggest interventions to develop that characteristic in gifted students who are underachieving in school.


Students develop confidence in many ways, and those who are confident about their skills are more likely to engage in a variety of activities. The perceptions students have about their skills influence the types of activities they select, how much they challenge themselves at those activities, and the persistence they exhibit once they are involved (Ames, 1990; Bandura, 1977, 1986; Schunk, 1981). This is true for activities ranging from participation in sports and music, to school achievement. Although research has shown that gifted students hold higher academic self-perceptions than their nongifted peers (Dai, Moon, & Feldhusen, 1998), much of the research literature on gifted underachievers suggests that they demonstrate low self-efficacy or poor self-concepts (Reis & McCoach, 2000; Supplee, 1990; Whitmore, 1980). Recent work by McCoach and Siegle (2001) indicated that gifted underachievers' self-efficacy, while slightly lower than gifted achievers' self-efficacy, is still quite strong. Therefore, at present, it is unclear whether gifted underachievers are likely to exhibit low self-efficacy.

For those who suffer from low self-confidence, Siegle (1995) suggested the following strategies to increase self-efficacy. Students who have been successful in the past are more likely to believe they will be successful in the future. The adage "Success breeds success" generally holds true for self-efficacy. To develop self-efficacy in students, educators and parents can help them recognize their successes and growth in specific areas. Rewards can also increase students' self-efficacy when they are tied to specific accomplishments (Schunk, 1989). When teachers give students opportunities to revise their work, they promote efficacious behavior. Students often view exams and projects as static portraits of their abilities at one point in time, instead of seeing the assignments as part of a learning process. Students need to appreciate that any project, no matter how well executed, can be enhanced with revisions and that a first attempt, even if fraught with errors, can be improved. Utilizing portfolios to preserve student work can be an effective way to document student growth and improvement over rime (Schunk, 1998).

Teacher compliments should be specific to the skills students are acquiring. A specific compliment, such as, "You really know how to calculate area," provides more information to a student than a general comment, such as, "Good job." Feedback linking successes with ability is more effective if the feedback is provided early in the students' performance (Schunk 1984, 1989). Although feedback linking success to ability can increase self-efficacy, failures should never be attributed to lack of ability. When failure is attributed to lack of effort or poor choice of learning strategies, students are likely to put forth more effort the next time they engage in a similar task. By contrast, failure that is attributed to lack of ability decreases student motivation (Dweck, 1975; Schunk, 1984; Schunk & Cox, 1986) when students perform poorly, educators can help them practice lack-of-effort or poor-strategy use explanations, while drawing attention to something they did correctly. For example, a comment like, "You know how to use a ruler, but you need to be more careful reading the numbers," provides both positive feedback and strategic guidance.

Teachers should also avoid the appearance of unsolicited help, expressions of sympathy following a substandard performance, or praise after an easy task. Students believe that these responses are indicative of low ability (Graham & Barker, 1990). Also, receiving praise for work completed without effort may cause students to doubt others' beliefs in their abilities. Gifted students who remain unchallenged in school and receive high praise for work that is easily accomplished may begin to doubt others' beliefs in their abilities. Similarly, doing the same task repeatedly does not maintain high self-efficacy (Schunk, 1998). Teachers must continually raise the academic hurdle for students who have shown mastery of specific skills or content. Again, gifted students are often repeatedly forced to show mastery of the same concepts and skills, and this constant repetition may sabotage a bright student's self-efficacy. Teachers who help promote self-efficacious learners consistently provide students with challenging assignments, offer specific praise for students accomplishments, and grant opportunities for students to revise their work.

Environmental Perception

We hypothesize that students' perceptions of their environment play an important role in their achievement motivation. Students who view their environment as friendly and reinforcing may be more likely to demonstrate achievement-oriented behaviors. Students who expect that they will succeed within their environment may be more likely to put forth effort. Phrases such as, "My teacher doesn't like me," or, "I can't learn this way," may be indicators that students do not view their learning environment as friendly or that they have developed a belief that their efforts do not affect outcomes (Rathvon, 1996).

Our belief in the importance of environmental perceptions is inspired by current states of knowledge in a variety of educational arenas. Underachievers appear to display negative attitudes toward school (Bruns, 1992; Clark, 1988; Diaz, 1998; Ford, 1996, 2001; Frankel, 1965; Mandel & Marcus, 1988; McCall, Evahn, & Krarzer, 1992; Rimm, 1995); achievers, on the other hand, tend to be interested in learning and to have positive attitudes toward school (Majoribanks, 1992; Mandel & Marcus, 1988; McCoach & Siegle, 2001; Weiner, 1992).

In order to be successful within a system or organization, a student must possess certain prerequisite skills. First, the student must understand the system; second, he or she must fit into the system; finally, he or she must master the system. Minority students and students from diverse cultures often feel disenfranchised from the culture of the school (Ford, 1996; Ogbu, 1978; Steele, 2000) because they feel that they either do not understand or do not fit into the school system. When the culture of the student is valued, educators are more likely to witness fundamental and essential changes in that student's achievement, motivation, attitudes, and behavior (Ford).

Gifted underachievers often view school negatively (McCoach & Siegle, 2001). They may feel like they do not fit into the system, and, in some cases, giftedness can actually represent a stigma in the schools (Cross, 1997). Gifted students, like other students, wish to "look good" and to avoid embarrassment in front of their peers. They often report that classroom teachers don't call on them when their hands are raised or embarrass them by calling on them when no one else knows the answer. From a teacher's perspective, the gifted child may appear to be the most likely choice when no one else raises a hand; however, gifted students feel embarrassed when they are unable to answer correctly, and they may be teased if they constantly answer the most difficult questions correctly. A second area of concern is how teachers relate to gifted students in their classes. Rather than appreciating the special gifts and talents these students exhibit, some teachers are threatened by the presence of gifted students in their classroom. Therefore, in some situations, underachievement may represent a coping strategy whereby students strive to adapt to an anti-intellectual school environment (Cross).


Children's goals and achievement values affect their self-regulation and motivation (Ablard & Lipschultz, 1998; Wigfield, 1994) because goals influence how children approach, engage in, and respond to achievement tasks (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000). When students value the goals of the school, they will be more likely to engage in academics, expend more effort on their schoolwork, and become achievers (Wigfield). Peterson (2000) followed achieving and underachieving gifted high school students into college and found that achievers' sureness and earlier determination of career direction suggested that direction may be a factor in successful achievement. Emerick (1992) reported that underachieving high school gifted students were able to reverse the underachievement pattern by developing goals that were both personally motivating and directly related to academic success. Students' motivation to complete tasks stems from the attainment value, utility value, and intrinsic value associated with the task (Wigfield).

Attainment value is the importance students attach to the task as it relates to their conception of their identity and ideals. For example, students who identify themselves as athletes set goals related to their sport. These students are more motivated to attain the goals because they are associated with the students' perceptions of who they are. Providing students with role models who value academic achievement may be one way to increase attainment value. Rimm (1995) suggested that same-sex models who resemble the student in some way are most effective. Educators must personalize the school experience by helping students to integrate academic goals into their ideals. Gordon (2000) cautioned educators to help students own their educational experience by making it meaningful for them.

Utility value is how the task relates to future goals. While students may not enjoy an activity, they may value a later reward or outcome it produces (Wigfield, 1994). The activity must be integral to their vision of their future. Because goals can play a key role in attaining later outcomes, educators and parents should help students see beyond the immediate activity to the long-term benefits it produces. Teachers need to be able to answer the common query, "Why do we have to study this stuff?"

Intrinsic value often results from the enjoyment an activity produces for the participant (Wigfield, 1994). When students enjoy scholastic tasks, they are intrinsically motivated to do well. Both interests and personal relevance produce intrinsic value for a student. Students bring a variety of experiences and interests to the classroom, and learning becomes personally meaningful when their prior knowledge and diverse experiences are connected with the present learning experiences. Educators can aid this by creating an enriching environment and providing opportunities for students to explore their interests. In a recent study, researchers used self-selected enrichment projects based on students' interests as a systematic intervention for underachieving gifted students. This approach specifically targeted student strengths and interests and helped reverse academic underachievement in over half of the sample (Baum, Renzulli, & Hebert, 1995). Emerick (1992) also found that gifted underachievers responded well to interventions that focused on individual strengths and interests.


Self-regulation (Zimmerman, 1989; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986) describes students' organization skills and attitude in executing tasks. For self-regulation to occur, a student must have both choice and control. Often, gifted students are not given the control over their own learning that would enable them to demonstrate their capability for self-regulatory processes.

Assuming that students have the skills to do well and are motivated, they must set realistic expectations and implement appropriate management strategies. Gifted students' use of self-regulatory strategies varies considerably (Ablard & Lipschultz, 1998; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986). Many gifted students are self-regulated learners; however, some gifted students exhibit low levels of self-regulatory strategy use. Research suggests that some gifted students are able to achieve at high levels without the use of self-regulatory strategies, although students who fail to develop appropriate strategies may be at risk for later underachievement (Ablard & Lipschultz). Because gifted students traditionally progress through the early years of school without being challenged, they sometimes fail to develop the self-management skills that other students master. In the early grades, good memory and fast processing skills can compensate for note taking and other study skills. Often, educators attempt to teach students study skills before students need those skills to be successful. This process usually frustrates both the teachers and the students. Self-regulatory skills are more likely to be internalized when they are needed to solve the problem at hand. An obvious solution to the problem is to provide gifted students with an academically challenging curriculum early and throughout their school careers.

Teachers can help students to develop self-regulatory skills by incorporating explicit strategies to teach and model those skills into their classrooms. Zimmerman, Bonner, and Kovatch (1996) have designed an instructional model for developing self-regulated learners that involves training in goal setting, strategy use, and self-monitoring. In their learning academy model, students evaluate their current levels of mastery, analyze the learning task, set their own learning goals, choose the appropriate strategy to master material, and monitor their own performance. When using this model with gifted students, teachers should pay careful attention to the first step, evaluating current levels of mastery. Teachers who allow students to assess their own mastery and set their own goals may be surprised at how well some gifted students' self-assess their prior knowledge and content mastery. When teachers incorporate formal and informal preassessments into the classroom, gifted students benefit in several ways. First, students have the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of content and skills before they are taught and work at a more appropriate level, creating a need for the student to use more self-regulatory strategies in order to be successful. Second, students learn to assess what they know and do not know, which helps to develop their self-monitoring skills. Finally, the students become more actively engaged in the learning process as they begin to see the connection between classroom activities and skill development.

In summary, using programs to develop gifted students' self-regulatory skills will be more successful when the students can show mastery of prior learning and practice developing self-regulatory skills in the context of new learning.


No single intervention will work with all gifted underachievers. Just as gifted underachievers differ from gifted achievers, gifted underachievers differ from each other. Discovering how the personal factors discussed in this paper interact with each other and the extent to which they influence the achievement of gifted students will provide fertile areas for future research. Research and pedagogy within the fields of educational psychology and gifted education can enhance our efforts to create positive achievement environments for gifted children.


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