149. Strategy for Underachievers

[Blog of the  Two Year MEd Batch of GCTE, Thiruvananthapuram]


What is underachievement?

Underachievement is one of those popular “catch-all” terms that means something different to nearly everyone who hears it.  In one sense, we are all underachievers.  Studies have been done which show that all humans use only a small percentage of their total brain capacity.  Additionally, most of us could pinpoint projects or activities, tests or papers where we could have put forth more effort than we actually did.  Almost everyone can recall something in which they could have done a better job.

These underachieving students have a significant gap between their ability and what they actually produce and achieve in school.  This type of underachievement is usually degenerative.  Signs begin in the early grades and the effects are cumulative as the child grows older.  While the signs of underachievement may begin in the early years, middle school, intermediate school or junior high usually marks the highest point of consistent underachievement.

Underachievers are students who, in a significant way, are not working up to their potential.  These students often see “YOU CAN DO BETTER” written boldly in red on homework, class work and test papers, and receive this message in many other ways, both verbally and non-verbally.  However, for a variety of reasons they continue to do much less than they are capable of doing.

Underachievement can be considered an “umbrella” term.  Underachievement does not only indicate specific disorders such as learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, ADD and ADHD.  Instead, it is a generic term and encompasses much more than that.

Educational significance

Underachieving students is a large problem in schools.  Teachers are challenged daily by students who don’t seem interested in learning. One of the most persistent questions facing individual teachers is, “How do I get all the students to achieve to their fullest potential?” The real problem facing educators is helping all students achieve optimal learning (conceptual understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to new problems, learning, and creations) with high quality content (from the students’ own interests, from state and local curricula, and national standards).

If we are serious about educating every child, we must include every child in meaningful, engaged learning. That means using teaching techniques that match what we know about how kids learn. There are a wide variety of reasons why students underachieve.  There are just as many solutions as reasons but all are based on quality teaching.  Incorporating technology into the curriculum is one possible way of increasing students’ motivation to learn.

What types of kids are underachievers?  How do they differ from achieving students both in and out of school?  

In studies comparing underachievers and high achievers, a significant difference in self-concept, school attitudes, and out-of-school pursuits is shown among students.  Underachievers usually have low self-esteem and a fear of failure.  Behaviorally, they are often described as “immature” or “behavior problems”.  Most lack motivation for schoolwork and say that they are bored with school.

Ironically, many underachieving students do not need to study in the primary grades and as a result they may lack basic study, time management and organizational skills by the time they reach the middle or intermediate level.  Gifted and talented students may become underachievers if they have not been challenged in school and therefore have never discovered how to learn something that is difficult.

How do schools contribute to underachievement?

Reasons for underachievement may come from the school.  Some teachers have impossible standards while others may have low expectations of their students. Either way, underachievement can result.  Other teachers are too strict or repressive and lack patience with students who ask difficult questions, do not conform, are divergent rather than convergent thinkers, etc.  This type of classroom climate eventually turns students off to school.

Many times, the make-up of the school system itself contributes to underachievement.  The conforming nature of the school setting, inappropriate or dull curricula, days and weeks spent on drill and practice activities for standardized tests, and inflexibility in scheduling, types of activities, or curricular content can lead to underachievement in many students.

Gifted students may become underachievers when the grade level curriculum does not challenge them and meet their needs.  If a gifted student is only presented with work and concepts he already knows and there is no attempt to differentiate the curriculum, he or she will soon decide school is “boring” and really is not the place to learn anything new.  This attitude often leads to underachievement.

Do parents and the child’s home life affect underachievement?  

Underachievers often come from homes where there is considerable instability within the family unit.  Since many families are in turmoil, under stress or overcommitted, it is easy to see why underachievement is on the rise.  When families have other worries to deal with, such as marital discord, job pressures, financial concerns, a lack of emotional support, no leisure or family time, and isolation from extended family, supporting day-to-day educational tasks becomes less of a priority.  Often, what is happening at school just gets lost in the shuffle.

In some families, just surviving from day to day is the focus of life.  In others, the complexity of modern life with all its busyness has taken its toll.   In both situations, a child’s achievement in school does not really seem important.  Still other parents demand high grades for their children without any concern as to whether they are actually learning anything.  To these parents, the report card is the important concern, instead of the learning that has or has not taken place.

Well meaning parents who place a high priority on educational achievement sometimes put too much pressure on their children to achieve in school.  “Counter identification” may result, where a parent overly identifies with the successes and failures of a child.  In this situation, the parent may almost be living his or her life through the child, and the child may feel he or she could never live up to parental expectations.  Many times, one child in such a family will become a high achiever while the other will rebel against the pressure to succeed and will be an underachiever.

Many children, especially children who have demonstrated a high potential for learning, are involved in too many extra-curricular activities.  There are some children who spend every afternoon and evening in one activity or another and then attempt to do their homework late at night.  Not only are such children stressed out by having too much of a good thing, many also become underachievers because they cannot keep up such a frantic pace.

For parents, being an encourager of educational achievement without exerting undo pressure requires striking a delicate balance.  There is no magic “balancing formula”, thus each parent has to decide where that point of balance needs to be with each child.

As the causes of underachievement are so varied, so are the strategies that can be used by teachers and parents to deal with this problem.

Description of the topic

The following are some strategies that Delisle and Berger suggest to reverse the underachievement:

*Supportive Strategies. Classroom techniques and designs that allow students to feel they are part of a “family,” versus a “factory,” include methods such as holding class meetings to discuss student concerns; designing curriculum activities based on the needs and interests of the children; and allowing students to bypass assignments on subjects in which they have previously shown competency.

*Intrinsic Strategies. These strategies incorporate the idea that students’ self-concepts as learners are tied closely to their desire to achieve academically. Thus, a classroom that invites positive attitudes is likely to encourage achievement. In classrooms of this type, teachers encourage attempts, not just successes; they value student input in creating classroom rules and responsibilities; and they allow students to evaluate their own work before receiving a grade from the teacher.

*Remedial Strategies. Teachers who are effective in reversing underachieving behaviors recognize that students are not perfect – that each child has specific strengths and weaknesses as well as social, emotional and intellectual needs. With remedial strategies, students are given chances to excel in their areas of strength and interest while opportunities are provided in specific areas of learning deficiencies. This remediation is done in a “safe environment in which mistakes are considered a part of learning for everyone, including the teacher. (Delisle)

All of the above strategies are based on getting the student motivated.  The more the student is motivated to learn the involvement there will be in the learning process.  A student could be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.  Intrinsically motivated students tend to employ strategies that demand more effort and that enable them to process information more deeply.   Whereas extrinsically oriented students gravitate toward tasks that are low in degree of difficulty and put forth the minimal effort required.(Lumsden)

Teachers can setup classrooms to encourage this motivation.  The students experience should be caring, supportive and a sense of belonging.  If the student has experience such as these they will participate in the process of learning.  Class goals should be challenging but obtainable.  The material should be relevance and shown how the skills taught in class can be applied in the real world. (Lumsden).

Technology in helping underachieving students

PAT is a great example of how technology empowers students to be successful.  In fact most research shows the educational technology has a large impact on student achievement.  The Milken Exchange, provide five studies that gave the positive and negative impact of educational technology.  It shows that in all the studies the positive impact by far prevail over the negative impact.  When there was a negative impact it was either the wrong approach or the teaching style.  All of the studies show an improvement on students attitude towards learning which helps motivate underachieving students.  The following is summary of the research:


*Kuliks Meta-Analysis Study

Kulik used more then 500 individual studies of computer-based instruction.  He found that on average students who used computer based instruction scored at the 64thpercentile compared to the control group at the 50th percentile.  He also noted that students learned more in less time.  There was also an increase in positive attitudes towards learning. (Kulik)

*Sivin-Kachalas Review of the research.

Jay Sivin-Kachala reviewed 219 research studies from 1990-1997 in all learning domains and all ages.  He notes that students using technology gained in all major areas.  This was true for regular and special needs children.  This also increased students attitude towards learning.

*The Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT)

ACOT looked at five schools across the nation to encourage instructional innovation and emphasis to teachers on the benefits of technology instruction.  Their study showed an increase in teachers using more innovative ways of teaching.  They study wanted to and appeared to show higher level reasoning and problem solving increased because of technology but the authors stated it was inconclusive.

*West Virginias Basic Skills/Computer Education Statewide Initiative

Dale Mann looked at the BS/CE program and its effect on student achievement and a cost benefit analysis.  The studies showed that the more the students participated in the program the higher their scores were.  It also showed a correlation between teacher attitude towards the technology and achievement of the students.  The Cost benefit analysis showed that the BS/CE was more cost effective then class size reduction from 35 to 20 students, increasing instructional time, and cross age tutoring programs. (Mann)

*Harold Wenglinskys National Study of Technologys Impact on Mathematics Achievement.

Wenglinsky assessed the effects of simulation and higher order thinking technologies on a nation sample of 6,227 fourth graders and 7,146 eighth graders.  He found that those who used the technology showed gains of up to 15 weeks above grade level as measured by National Assessment of Education Progress.  It also increased academic achievement in mathematics for both grade levels.  However the students that used technology to play learning games only performed slightly higher than normal and students that used skill and drill technology performed worse than the students who use no technology.



Motivating Underachievers: 20 Strategies for Teachers

  1. Maintain contact between home and school.  Communicate in numerous ways: parent conferences, home visits, voice mail, cell phones, fax, e-mail, notes, video conferences and phone calls.  We are in the Information Age; take advantage of new technologies as you communicate with parents!
  2. Discourage the “Parent to the Rescue” syndrome.  Work with parents so that they won’t constantly rescue their child when he or she forgets homework or another needed item.  Work with parents so that they can develop realistic, enforceable consequences when their child does not exhibit responsible behavior.
  3. Emphasize goal setting, showing students how life success is linked to school performance.  Have former students come and talk to your class about the value of school in terms of success outside of school.  E-mail interviews are also a good way to link students to the outside world.
  4. Encourage more reading and less TV, videos, computer games and surfing the Internet at home.  Reading anything, regardless of what it is, will generally increase achievement.

5.Use concepts from the world of sports as analogies for goal setting in life.  Success in most sports involves working toward a goal.  Use words such as goalie, goal post, personal best, game plan, etc. to show the conceptual links between the world of sports and the world of school.

  1. Hold students accountable for actions, behavior, materials and work.  Don’t use threats like “you can’t carry out”.  Instead, say what you mean and follow through on it.
  2. Help underachievers identify their areas of strength.  Most underachievers are painfully aware of their weaknesses, but every underachiever has much strength as well.  Notice these strengths and work to enhance them!
  3. Use whole group instruction, individualized study, heterogeneous grouping and cluster or ability grouping, each as they are appropriate for the teaching and learning goals and outcomes.
  4. Use various forms of assessment.  Schools should not be solely “test prep” institutions.  Assessing learning can be done in many ways.  Underachievers are often not good test takers.  Try performance assessments, rubrics, checklists and portfolios to document learning success.
  5. Use the expertise and experience of other teachers in deciding on strategies to use with your underachievers.  Collaborate by sharing strategies you know work with underachieving students.  Plan strategies jointly for dealing with your underachievers.
  6. Plan lessons that involve all of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, a variety of learning styles and modalities, and/or all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  7. Make sure your lessons give the opportunity for students to use higher level thinking skills.  Underachievers are often bored with low level thinking yet may be great problem solvers when given more complex and challenging problems.
  8. Use brain-based learning theories to develop interdisciplinary, integrated teaching units.
  9. Provide hands-on learning experiences.  This is particularly important for kinesthetic, concrete random learners, a description that fits many underachievers.
  10. Use outside resources and school staff to offer specialized courses based on student interests.  Sometimes an interesting mini-course will be just the thing to give an underachiever a successful school experience and motivation to do more.
  11. Identify specific organizational skills your underachievers need to learn.  Work on these skills one at a time.  Show your underachievers practical ways to become more organized.
  12. Include classroom activities that increase skill in memorization.  Memorizing successfully increases self-confidence and builds the base for other types of school success.
  13. Team each underachieving student with an achieving partner of equal ability.  This works well because the achieving partner will usually encourage the underachiever.  Don’t pair achievers and underachievers of unequal ability.
  14. Be intentional about teaching study skills.  These are not automatic for most students, and tend to be particularly difficult for underachievers.  Telling an underachiever to study without showing him what that means and how to do it is a waste of time!
  15. Have students discuss and think about success and failure.  Talk about the fear of failure but also the fear of success.  Address issues such as text anxiety and perfectionism.  Dealing with these issues in a positive, proactive and helpful manner is one way to boost achievement.

Motivating Underachievers: Strategies for Parents

  1. Don’t use “put-downs” and sarcasm in dealing with your child.  Even if he is driving you crazy and a sarcastic remark would make you feel better, there is no long-term beneficial result from doing this.
  2. Emphasize what your child has learned from an assignment or activity, even if mistakes were made.  All of us learn a great deal from our failures and mistakes.  Help your child understand this and that all of us make mistakes from time to time.
  3. Be aware of times your underachiever is trying to manipulate you.  Underachievers are particularly adept at manipulating adults, and experiencing success in this behavior only makes underachievement worse.
  4. Be aware of your child’s areas of intense interest and build on these.  Use success in an interest outside of school as an encouragement for success in school.  Share your child’s special interests with the teacher.  He or she may be able to use these to motivate your child.
  5. Don’t overload your child with activities!  Some students are underachievers simply because they have too much to do and too many demands on their time.  One or two extra-curricular activities a week are enough for most children.
  6. Promote a love of reading in your home.  Designate one night a week as “No TV night” and have a reading night instead.  Make the most inviting place in your home a “Reading Area” where the only thing that can be done is reading.
  7. Discover your child’s academic weakness.  Brainstorm ways to make learning fun in this area.  Create a game or song that makes learning easier.
  8. Encourage your child to teach things he or she knows to someone younger.  Find an older child or mentor to work with your child in an area of interest or in a difficult subject.
  9. Set aside a “Study Time” in your home every night.  No activities other than studying are allowed during study time.  Be a lifelong learner yourself and model good studying behavior during Study Time.
  10. With the classroom teacher, devise a system of parent-teacher communication.  Take advantage of new technologies.  Use e-mail, school or teacher websites, homework hotlines and other forms of communication when available.  Don’t be afraid to contact the teacher.  It is much better to work on a problem together than for each of you to struggle with it on your own.


Students that underachieve can be helped with simple changes to course content and deliver of material.  Student motivation is a large part of a student reaching their highest potential.  AVID and PUMP have looked at student motivation and have challenged their students to success.  Technology is a great tool to engage and empower students to heighten their attitude towards learning and allow them to succeed.





Mann, D., Shakeshaft, C.,  Becker, J., & Kottkamp, R.  West Virginias Basic Skills/Computer Education Program: An analysis of student achievement.  Santa Monica, CA: Miliken Family Foundation. 1999.

Submitted by Ms.Arantxa. K G.


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