introduction to underachievement


Underachievement is one of the more slippery concepts in education, let alone in the realm of giftedness. There is no explicit threshold we use to determine that a child is or is not an underachiever. "If your grades fall one standard deviation below your aptitude, as measured on the I.Q. Test, then you are deemed to have underachieved."

Nope. It is just not that simple.

A lot of what we end up with is I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Personally, I have a hard time with the concept, and to an extent, the papers that follow this reflect that difficulty. But at the same time, I cannot deny that there are people who are keenly aware of not living up to their expectations of themselves, let alone the expectations of people around them (like teachers, counselors, and especially parents).

As always, you can find myriad links on the subject at Hoagies!


In the beginning

The concept of underachievement is likely to be about one day younger than the concept of achievement, but the word itself came into professional language with Edmund Williamson's  How to Counsel Students: a Manualof Techniques for Clinical Counselors, from 1939. An underachiever is defined as “astudent who fails to achieve his academic potential.”1

Sixty-one years later, in what is considered to still be the state of the art definition, Reis and McCoach said that: "Underachievers are students who exhibit a severe discrepancy between expected achievement (as measured by standardized achievement test scores or cognitive or intellectual ability assessments) and actual achievement (as measured by class grades and teacher evaluations). To be classified as an underachiever, the discrepancy between expected and actual achievement must not be the direct result of a diagnosed learning disability and must persist over an extended period of time." They did note that their definition was "imperfect, yet workable."2

Note, if you would, the exclusion of a diagnosed learning disability. Undiagnosed learning disabilities are among the most common factors in students' being labeled underachievers. Thorndike argued that there are no underachievers, only students who have not been sufficiently evaluated. Williamson, in his chapter on underachievers, mentioned a few other factors: 


  • There are so many factors which affect the correlation between test scores and marks that a prediction of individual scholastic success on the basis of test scores alone is far from perfect. The tendencies of able students to form habits of idleness and "getting by" are familiar phenomena. Other factors influencing this correlation are differences in efficiency in the use of mental ability, amount of remunerative work carried parallel to the academic load, amount of home duties, extent of indulgence in social activities, earnestness and perseverance, health disturbances, worries and emotional disturbances, early school training, degree of interest in academic work, and varying standards of scholarship in different schools.1

And Reis and McCoach:

  • Environmental influences and events have a major impact on students' achievement. Consider an extreme example: No one would be surprised if a student who had been ill for a long period of time scored significantly lower on a standardized achievement test or a final exam than a healthy classmate of similar ability. However, other intervening environmental influences and experiences that may not be obvious to school personnel or parents also affect achievement. For example, a student who is clinically depressed or has other emotional or drug-related problems may experience a sudden decline in school grades. Being aware of these factors could change teacher and parent perceptions of the student as an underachiever. Moreover, a student's family, school, or community environment or peer influences may also influence his or her level of achievement. 2

In October 2018, I wrote about this in a Hoagies Blog Hop entry called Gifted Underachievers: A Contrarian Position or Two: "That’s pretty comprehensive, especially for 1939. Add to it racial and ethnic complications, poverty issues, and undiagnosed/misdiagnosed disabilities/differences of one sort of another, and you’ve just about got them all, though probably not quite."3

Williamson noted that more research was needed for us to understand just how big a gap between potential and performance is a problem. Reis and McCoach, decades later, had no answer to that, but they added that we don't know how long the gap needs to exist for it to be a problem.

At this writing, it has been 80  and nearly 20 years, respectively.

 1. Williamson, E. G.. (1939). How to counsel students: a manual of techniques for clinical counselors. New York: McGraw-Hill book company, inc. 

2. S.M. Reis, D.B. McCoach. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: what do we know and where do we go? Gifted Child Quarterly, 44 (2000), pp. 152-169

3. Shaine, Josh. (2018). Gifted Underachievers: A Contrarian Position or Two. Retrieved from on 11/3/2019.