Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Underachievers need to be challenged

27 Oct 2014 09:52 | Communication

Challenge is a hot topic in education in the Netherlands. Underachievers form a neglected group in this respect. Challenge is crucial for this group in particular, as discovered by AUAS student Wietse Jelles who is training to become a History Teacher. He won the AUAS Research Award for his research.

They are the students who earn relatively low grades, but who actually have above-average intelligence; the so-called underachievers. Why do they perform below their ability? Wietse Jelles investigated this for his final project. 

Underachievers rely on their intelligence

Psychological research has shown that you use your brain in two ways while you learn: first, you use your intelligence, but you also have to use your ‘metacognition’. This part of the brain becomes active when you don’t understand something, as a result of which you have to come up with a strategy. You need metacognition to learn really difficult material.

Wietse based his research on the following hypothesis: underachievers use their intelligence, but not their metacognition. The reason for this is that they are not challenged enough: because they can handle the material with their intelligence alone, their metacognition doesn’t have to get involved. As a result they do not develop any metacognitive skills. Therefore they just get by in secondary school, but often run into problems in higher professional education or university education.

Assignments too easy

Wietse then put his theory to the test at his internship school, to determine whether underachievers need to be challenged more. He examined the exercises in the history book according to Bloom’s taxonomy and found that the exercises appeal almost exclusively to the ‘lower thinking skills’, such as comprehension. He selected eight underachievers and asked what they thought of these assignments. They found them to be too easy, and not fun.

Wietse then presented the students with assignments he had made himself, which required ‘higher thinking skills’. Seven of the eight students found the assignments difficult, and most of them found them to be both fun and interesting. The students had to think aloud, and Wietse taped this with a memo recorder. ‘You can hear that they frequently use higher thinking skills. This shows that challenge plays an important role in helping underachievers perform to their ability,’ Wietse explains.


However, if the challenge becomes too great, the mark is overshot and the student becomes insecure. This was the case for two students in response to Wietse’s assignments; they found them to be too difficult. Wietse: ‘This shows us how important it is to know who the underachievers are. Schools need to pay close attention to the characteristics, so that they can provide extra challenges to these students. This is important for the rest of their educational career.’
Wietse selected the 8 underachievers on the basis of results and behavioural characteristics.