A Peer Reviewed Journal - ISSN 1499-819X

Volume 7, Number 3

January 30, 2004

© 2004 Natalie Roberts and EGallery

EGallery grants reproduction rights for noncommercial educational purposes with the provision that full acknowledgment of the source is noted on each copy.


An Exploration of Underachievers in the Classroom

A Semester 1 Independent Inquiry

By Natalie Roberts

For Eugene Kowch


Treat people as if they are
what they ought to be
you help them become
what they are capable of being.




Classrooms are heterogeneous. Students' cultural backgrounds are diverse; their learning abilities vary widely. One group of students, the reluctant learners (or underachievers), are of particular interest to me. In this inquiry, I explore how students' underachievement does not necessarily correlate with their ability. In addition, I am interested in discovering why some children who are skilled at performing well do not give any indication of their abilities or lack of interest in school, and therefore perform below their capabilities. As a result, I seek to determine what teachers can do in the classroom to engage these particular students and in doing so enhance classroom learning for all students.

In order to define underachievement, one must determine what is meant by achievement. The "concept of using energy to overcome difficulties to reach a desired goal" is called achievement (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 1). According to my field research, the teachers of Highveld Elementary and Junior High School (pseudonym, N. Roberts, November 2002) defined achievement as students who are able to accomplish their goals, meeting the expectations set by themselves, their teachers and parents. The student's performance is "evaluated against a set of criterion or some standard of excellence" (Spence, 1983, p. 12). Numerous factors, both extrinsic and intrinsic to the individual student, can affect achievement. While intrinsic motivation results from the "enjoyment and satisfaction the individual gets from taking part in an activity", extrinsic motivation is behaviour that is "shaped by rewards from the external environment" (Lefton, 2000, p. 299). Such extrinsic rewards can be seen in school in the form of high marks or recognition; in the workplace they might come in the form of an increase in salary. These results can "reinforce existing behaviours, improve feelings of self-worth and competence, and provide individuals with information about their performance" (Lefton, 2000, p. 299). According to Edward Deci (1975), people take part in these types of behaviours for two reasons: "to obtain cognitive stimulation and to gain a sense of accomplishment, competence and mastery over the environment" (Lefton, 2000, p. 300). Each person will differ in their need for "cognitive stimulation" depending upon personal "experiences and genetic make-up" (Lefton, 2000, p. 300). Hence, achievement is based upon hereditary traits, perseverance and the need for accomplishment.

The purpose of school is to "foster a will to learn and the teacher's role is to encourage both confidence and high achievement in their students" (Alderman, 1999, p. 11). Performance in the education system is often measured by tests and teacher evaluations. According to Mandel and Marcus (1988), "underachievement varies from grade to grade, from one school to another, and even from one teacher to another" (p. 2). Underachievement is defined as "a discrepancy between a person's intellectual capacity (IQ) and performance on standardized achievement tests" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 3). According to Mr. Larry Smith (pseudonym, N. Roberts, November 2002) "academic underachievement is not meeting expectations and academic potential". He defines academic achievement as "a student being successful when they have met the class expectations for a particular subject area". Therefore, underachievement occurs when an individual's performance does not measure up to their level of cognitive ability. Their level of performance can be affected by such things as "setting, individuals and situations" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 2). Mia Kellmer-Pringle has referred to underachievers as "able misfits" (Montgomery, 1998, p. 30). She reports that underachievers, as a group, demonstrate the following characteristics:

  1. A feeling of failure and limited desire;
  2. A dislike of school work and book learning;
  3. Poor study habits;
  4. Inadequate relationships with peers;
  5. A high occurrence of emotional problems (Montgomery, 1998, p. 30).

It has been shown that underachievers reduce or prevent their achievement by their "negative attitudes and inappropriate behaviours" (Felton & Briggs, 1977, p. 65). Underachievers expect to fail, generally "set their goals too high or too low", and have an external locus of control (Felton & Briggs, 1977, p. 65). Underachievers do not believe they are in control of their own success and learning by the types of choices they make. Hence, their problem-solving skills are unsuccessful because they do not ask themselves questions about the assignments or material presented to them. Underachievers believe there is only one correct answer. As a result, when they participate in academic activities, they often feel frustrated and this reinforces their belief that they are not good enough and do not have the capabilities to complete the task.

Underachievers can be characterized as lacking in self-confidence and motivation, and generally having social difficulties and family problems (Highveld Elem. & Jr. High School, pseudonym, N., Roberts, November 2002). Mandel and Marcus (1988) researched sources and conducted various personality tests to determine the characteristics and personality traits of underachievers, achievers and overachievers. Table 1 lists some of the characteristics.

Table 1: Characteristics of Underachievers and Achievers (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, pp. 16-17)

Low self-concept Higher self-concept of ability
Negative self-attitudes Positive attitude towards achievement
More self-critical Concerned with positive relationships
Reported more family conflicts High sense of self-responsibility
Rated teachers negatively Positive images of teachers
Less accurate at self-evaluations Increased self-confidence
Greater connection to peer values Resourceful

It is clear from this comparison that underachievers appear to view themselves and others negatively. This type of thinking behaviour will influence a person’s level of performance in any activity. Indeed, this behaviour tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who think themselves incapable of success, and that school is not for them and that there is no one who can help them, tend to manifest their beliefs in their results. Even if their perceptions about their true capabilities are inaccurate, they tend to behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.

Other personality traits Mandel and Marcus (1988) found that distinguish underachievers from achievers and overachievers are highlighted in Table 2. The traits were measured by such tests as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II (MMPI-2) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition-Revised (DSM-III-R).

Table 2: Personality Traits (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 23)

Submissive Positive self-image Socially aware
Defensive Serious minded Responsible
Distrustful Responsible Grade motivated
Passive-aggressive Dominant Family dependent
Low aspiring Self-confident Approval seeking
Easygoing Disciplined Internally anxious
Considerate Future oriented Consistent
Unassuming Independent Self-starting
Anxious Achievement motivated Organized
Alienated Positive social relationships Hardworking

Other researchers such as Thurman and Wolfe (1999) characterized underachievers as poor self-directed learners who lacked personal goals, were disorganized, and credited good grades to luck. Ghavam (1992) found that underachievers had poor concentration and study skills, were restless, and were emotionally and socially immature.

Where do these negative characteristics originate? What factors influence underachievement? Montgomery (1998) reports that some underachieving children believe that school is not the place for them, that it cannot meet their needs. The students have difficulty understanding the relevance of the school subjects in their lives. Montgomery (1998) says that there are other children whose bad experiences at school negatively affect their beliefs and understanding about what it means to be in school. In addition, she reports that children from abused homes tend to withdraw from learning because their emotional needs are not being met. As a result, these students usually experience repeated failure and have negative feelings about themselves and school, a situation that leads to a cycle of continuing failure (Heacox, 1991).

Factors Influencing Underachievement

A student's success or failure is often dependent upon the actions of parents, teachers and students. Bandura (1986) emphasizes that there is an association between an individual's cognitive processes and their social environment, what he calls "reciprocal relationships" (Alderman, 1999, p. 16). Parents and teachers influence the student's goals and values. So a student's behaviour in school is related to the cognitive beliefs and environmental factors that influence it. For example, students who come from families that value education and support their children’s efforts at school have a kind of social momentum that tends to encourage their success. The students' beliefs and goals are supported and complemented by their social environment, and vice versa. According to Mandel and Marcus (1988), there is a similar relationship of internal and external factors that affects underachievement, and these can be temporary or permanent. The "internal temporary factors" include prolonged periods of "illness or poor nutrition" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 6). The "external temporary factors" include 'the absence of a teacher for long periods of time or parental illness" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 6). External permanent factors include moving from school to school, separation in the family and the loss of a loved one. Internal permanent factors include "learning disability", "visual or hearing impairment" and "personality" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 6). Temporary and permanent characteristics relate to the length of time a factor exerts its influence. Permanent factors can "cause long-lasting changes in a person's life situation" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 5).

Family Factors

Mandel and Marcus (1988) explored various other factors influencing underachievement, including "family relationships, socio-economic status, peer group relations, and school influences" (pp. 30-43). Their findings suggested that "mothers of underachievers were more controlling and were less confident in how they managed and carried out disciplinary actions" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 30). In comparison, "mothers of achievers allowed their children to be more explorative at an earlier age, and did not have difficulties managing their children's behaviour" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 30). Parental separation and divorce tended to have an impact on student’s achievement as well. Studies have shown that "children between the ages of six and ten years of age are particularly vulnerable" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 34). However, if the "children receive the proper counselling and support, their academic achievement can improve over time" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 34). One of the common characteristics of underachievers was their sense of separation from other family members. Underachievers are generally "not close to their families and are less likely to make an effort at school or home to please their parents" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 35).

Socio-Economic Factors

The factor of socio-economic status had a greater effect on the aspect of internal and external rationales for failure (Mandel & Marcus, 1988). Students from middle class families tended to attach failure to external factors such as insufficient study time or poor preparation. In comparison, the students from lower class families tended to "suffer greater damage to their self-esteem," suggesting "internal factors" affected their failure (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 33). Such internal factors could include a sense of not being smart enough or good enough to write the test. Overall, socio-economic status is difficult to determine as a sole factor affecting underachievement because it has so many components to it. Mandel and Marcus (1988) noted that "more studies needed to be conducted and the variables such as ethnicity and culture needed to be controlled" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 34).

School Factors

Since schools are the places where learning is to be fostered, supported and developed, how does schooling affect underachievement? Mandel and Marcus (1988) report that teachers can have a significant impact on a student's success. Teachers gather information on students from files, other teachers, and classroom and school activities. Generally, teachers begin to form expectations of their students in relation to the data they have collected. Mandel and Marcus (1988) note that these expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. They say teachers behave "differently to low- and high-achieving students, and have more positive reactions to students whose academic expectations are high" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 47). Other factors like the "size of school and school district", the "school’s social-psychological culture" and "class size" also play a role in affecting student achievement (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 47). Smaller schools and regions usually provide smaller class sizes. Small classes tend to increase teacher-student contact time, allowing students to benefit from more individualized programs that respond to their particular academic weaknesses.

Profiles of Underachievers

Apart from the factors influencing underachievement, what does an underachieving student look like in the classroom? Diane Heacox (1991) has developed a profile for underachievers. In her book, Up From Underachievement, she characterizes underachievers as falling into nine different types. The first type is called the rebel, who does not believe that school is important in life. Rebels have unrealistic personal goals, thinking themselves on track to becoming everything from a professional athlete to a rock star (Heacox, 1991, p. 13). In addition, the rebel student "This is dumb" or "Why do we have to do this anyway?" (Heacox, 1991, p. 13).

The second type is the conformist, who is heavily influenced by peer group actions. A conformist is a student whose peers are not interested in school or achievement – a will follow the group. Heacox (1991) also notes "conformists are afraid of increased pressure from their parents and teachers if they do well" (Heacox, 1991, p. 13). These students fear that they will not be able to keep up the good work.

The stressed learner is the third type, also known as the perfectionist (Heacox, 1991, p. 14). Their self-confidence is highly dependent upon their academic performance. They commonly say, "What if I can’t do this?" or "It’s not quite ready yet." (Heacox, 1991, p. 14). Procrastination and an avoidance of risks are indicative of "the stressed learner".

The fourth type is the struggling student who remarks "I don’t understand" or "That’s too much work to do, I'll never get it done in time" (Heacox, 1991, p. 15). This type tends to lack the proper study habits, time management and organization skills for learning. They will spend more time trying to get out of completing their work than actually doing it. They are unable to plan and ask for the appropriate help. Whereas, the victim has low self-responsibility, and generally has others take control for them (Heacox, 1991, p. 16). They say such things as "You expected too much" or "The teacher doesn't like me" (Heacox, 1991, p. 16).

The student who has difficulty balancing personal and academic activities is called the distracted learner (Heacox, 1991, p. 17). Comments from this type include "We had a track meet" or "Things haven't been going too well lately" (Heacox, 1991, p. 17). They have poor time management and organization skills, and may have large family obligations. For example, one parent of the distracted learner may work shifts and relies on the older child to take care of the household chores and duties, preventing the student from completing their schoolwork or remaining after school for additional help when needed.

The seventh type of underachiever is the bored student who makes comments like "When can I learn what I want to learn?" or "I learned this all last year" (Heacox, 1991, p. 18). Generally these students need more challenging work and hands-on activities. There is also the potential that the bored student is afraid of failing and therefore will not do the required work (p. 18).

The student who follows the status quo and is satisfied with his or her own academic achievements is called the complacent learner (Heacox, 1991, p. 19). They generally say things such as "I'm doing as well as I want to" or "It's important to you, not me" (p. 19). The adults in this student's life believe that he or she could perform at a higher level. There is a possibility that the "adult goals are too high and place undue pressure on the student to succeed beyond their developmental potential" (p. 19).

The last type of underachiever profile is the single-sided learner who believes that only certain subjects are worthy of their effort and generally says, "That subject bores me" or "That class isn't important to me" (Heacox, 1991, p. 20). This type of learner tends to exhibit achievement in some classes and poor performance in others. Success in certain classes may be motivated by the interest in the subject, or the different kinds of learning activities in which they participate.

The various underachiever profiles that Heacox (1991) has identified are interconnected by one common element of trying to determine what will engage these students in learning. In order to engage individuals in different learning activities, you need to establish what their interests are – and decide if, as a teacher, you can utilize these interests to motivate their learning. Motivation in learning is important, not only for establishing goals, but also for how it "drives people to search, process and use information" (Alderman, 1999, p. 9). Motivation helps individuals get back on track when things have not gone well. According to Alderman (1999) "the current motivation theories and research is focusing on developing self-regulated learners" (p. 10). Self-regulated learners "use both motivation and learning strategies" for academic success (p. 10). They are able to take control of their own learning even when they have come across areas of difficulty. There is a "will to learn" and the self-directed learners are confident and believe in their "ability to think for themselves" (Alderman, 1999, p. 11).

Fostering Success With the Underachiever

Motivation is a characteristic that is integral to learning or just participating in life in general. According to Heacox (1991) "the student’s cycle of failure has to be broken in order to boost his or her motivation and achievement" (p. 62). Students can get trapped in a continuous cycle of failure, which lowers self-esteem. At school, "the lack of desire to learn leads to more failure, which reinforces their beliefs that they are unable to learn" (p. 62). Teachers and parents need to take small steps to help the underachiever have small accomplishments that they recognize as their own. Generally in a classroom the students who finish their work first get to do extra tasks for the teacher, like "dropping information off at the office or picking up supplies from another classroom" (p. 62). Heacox suggests that the underachiever could be given these tasks to make them feel as if they are part of the class and can contribute positively. Secondly, she suggests that class work be broken down into smaller workable tasks with "checkpoints along the way" (p. 63). This will help keep underachievers on track and receive positive feedback when they have managed to meet their mini deadlines. In addition, the teacher needs to be able to recognize the small successes the student is achieving. For example, if the student has come up with a great idea in an essay that still needs work in grammar and spelling, the student can be praised for the idea and can work on the grammar and spelling at another time.

Parents also play an integral role in student success and need to help the underachiever accomplish tasks at home too. Perhaps the student has other interests that can be turned into successes, like joining the arts club or playing ball hockey. Ghavam (1992) stresses that parents need to learn to "praise the accomplishments of the student rather than always criticizing the failures" (p. 6). Heacox (1991) emphasizes that success in every facet of a student’s life helps improve or maintain self-esteem and motivation.

Knowing how to learn is key to any child's success in school. There are many different learning strategies that students can adopt. Alderman (1999) lists the following learning strategies:

  1. Basic rehearsal of material
  2. Complex rehearsal of material (copying notes or highlighting information)
  3. Basic elaboration (creating mental images or pictures that connect items)
  4. Complex elaboration (summarizing material and relating it to prior knowledge)
  5. Basic organization (grouping or categorizing information)
  6. Complex organization (creating outlines and graphic organizers to show relationships)
  7. Comprehension monitoring (self-questioning)
  8. Affective and motivational (use of self-talk to reduce anxiety) (pp. 126-127).

The lesson content also has to be appropriate for the learning stages of the student. If the lessons are too easy, then it becomes boring and unmotivating (Heacox, 1991). By contrast, if the lessons are too hard, then it can overwhelm the student, resulting in a lack of success and a loss of motivation (Heacox, 1991).

The value of learning is also an important concept in helping the student understand the importance of achievement. Generally, I have observed from my field experiences so far that some students have difficulties understanding how their subjects are relevant to their lives at present. It is a challenge to get them to see how it is going to benefit them ten to fifteen years from now. Parents can model positive learning by sharing their interest in the child's schoolwork or by sharing interesting articles from the newspaper (Heacox, 1991). Sometimes television shows or newspaper items can spark a child’s interest and provide an opportunity to explore ideas with him or her. There is no need to delve deeply into the topic, but rather there is a need to allow the child to ask their own questions and think about where they could go to find out more information, such as by visiting the local library. I think places such as the local library or museum are great places for children to explore their learning and to ask lots of questions about what they see. Peaking a child's curiosity is a wonderful way to foster and enhance learning. Teachers can also enhance curiosity by having guest speakers or taking their students on field trips. I believe these strategies provide for variety in the learning process and take learning outside the classroom.

The classroom structure also needs to promote student learning. According to Mandel and Marcus (1988, p. 11), the following features of a classroom are considered optimum for enhancing motivation and learning: (i) classroom activities need to be challenging and interesting; (ii) students should be given the chance to participate in developing the classroom rules of conduct, therefore promoting self-responsibility; and (iii) the assessment of the students should demonstrate growth and achievement. Thurman and Wolfe (1999) report that "lessons designed with plenty of involvement and movement would help students stay on task" (p. 16). They state that "cooperative learning, where small groups of students worked collaboratively on classroom projects" is a great way to reach all students (Thurman & Wolfe, 1999, p. 16). As cited in Thurman and Wolfe (1999), Johnson and Johnson (1991) noted that "there were strong positive effects on achievement as well as the ability to think critically, to perform higher order thinking, to display more effective reasoning, and to think more creatively when students worked in a group" (p. 16). Group work gave the high achieving students the chance to help the low achieving ones, allowing the students to learn from one another.

Since underachievers can tend to lack the appropriate social skills, Thurman & Wolfe (1999) noted "cooperative learning also emphasized the development of a student's social skills" (p. 16). The low achieving students participating in a group have the chance to share ideas and possibly work from their strengths. All the students would have to determine the best way to work together to complete their project. It is up to the teacher to monitor how the work was being divided amongst the group members. There is the possibility with group work that the high achievers can become frustrated with the low achieving students and may end up completing all the work. That is why it is important for the teacher to monitor the group’s activities. Thurman and Wolfe (1999) suggest organizing the groups specifically to the task you want to accomplish. They found that grouping together students with similar abilities was advantageous when the task was "a drill or practice type" (Thurman & Wolfe, 1999, p. 18). For example, if the students were reviewing the laws of exponents, the strong students would be put together in one group to allow them to review at their own pace. In addition, Thurman and Wolfe (1999) found that when the activity was project-based, groups that included students with differing abilities allowed their members to benefit from one another, by learning from each other and developing problem-solving skills together. Overall, I see the concept of group work is a benefit to the teacher because it provides the teacher with time to work with individual students who may need the additional help.

According to Heacox (1991) "underachievers want school to be different. Some are angry, some are hurt, nearly all have negative feelings about themselves, but they still have a desire to be successful in school" (p. 2). That is why it is so important to recognize that "student success and failure depend upon the parents, teachers and students" (p. 3). It is not appropriate to expect every student to be a "straight A student" since students have diverse abilities and interests. However, "every student has the ability to learn and to personally succeed in school" (p. 2).

Concluding Remarks

As a prospective teacher, I have learned that underachievement can differ from student to student, from one grade level to another, and from school to school. I define an underachieving student as one who does not have the appropriate skills and support to be successful academically or personally. Sockett (1988) has for me so eloquently said what I believe education to be: "Education is, at least, the endeavour to get people to do the things they could not previously do, to understand things they did not previously understand, and perhaps, to become the people they did not expect to become" (Alderman, 1999, p. 3). It is my responsibility as a teacher "to help students cultivate personal qualities of motivation that can give them resources for developing aspiration, independent learning, achieving goals and fostering resiliency in the face of setbacks" (Alderman, 1999, p. 3).

It was difficult for the teachers of Highveld Elem. & Jr. High School (pseudonym, N. Roberts, November 2002) to determine the best way to help academic underachievers. Generally, the teachers reported it was the classroom teacher's responsibility to determine the root problem for underachievement, determine some manner to motivate and encourage the student, and involve the parents in a plan to help the student achieve success (Black, V., pseudonym, N. Roberts, November 2002). If the student is able to make a "personal connection" with the class material, there is a possibility the student will try to engage in their work. I believe it is imperative that teachers be flexible in their teaching and employ a variety of teaching methods to capture the student’s interest and desire to work.

The research I have studied for this inquiry has demonstrated that underachievers are individuals who want to be successful, but these students often lack the necessary skills for achievement. I want to be able to provide a classroom that allows for differentiated learning in order to meet the many needs of my students. In order to do this I would implement the following strategies in my classroom:

  1. Teach students appropriate study skills and habits
  2. Have individual as well as group learning activities
  3. Set up hands-on learning centres within the classroom for students to explore
  4. Encourage students to ask each other for help before coming to the teacher
  5. Include the students in setting up classroom rules and behaviour at the beginning of the school year to foster self-responsibility
  6. Plan for guest speakers to present some interesting information relating to our subject area
  7. Plan for day trips to places that will enhance or bring meaning to our particular subject area
  8. Schedule after school study sessions for any students requiring extra help
  9. Maintain regular communication with parents to provide positive feedback concerning their child
  10. Develop an individual and class reward system for achievement, improvement and participation
  11. Help students understand assessment and achievement tests, and how best to prepare for them.

I am now a firm believer that we all have choices available to us in every area of our life. The research has shown me that each student is influenced by his or her family traditions and personal and academic experiences. As a teacher in preparation, I do not believe that underachievement is a phenomenon that just strikes down individuals. "Choices of action or inaction, or of hopelessness or despair, frequently are made without awareness of either the specific choosing behaviour or its possible consequences" (Felton & Briggs, 1977, p. 10). It is important for people to learn to take responsibility for their own actions, and as a result to recognize that they are able to change their behaviour. Change is not an easy process and it takes time and effort. Research such as that presented here suggests that it is indeed possible for underachieving students to break out of their cycle of failure to become productive, achieving and successful individuals.


Alderman, M.K. (1999). Motivation for achievement: Possibilities for teaching and learning. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Felton, G.S. and Briggs, B.E. (1977). Up from underachievement. Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.

Ghavam, C.C. (1992). Parent-teacher empowerment: Meeting the needs of underachieving students. Illinois, US: Guides – Non-Classroom Use. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 390 543)

Heacox, D. (1991). Up from underachievement: How teachers, students and parents can work together to promote student success. Minnesota: Free Spirit Publishing.

Lefton, L., Boyes, M., and Ogden, N. (2000). Psychology: Canadian edition. Toronto: Allyn and Bacon.

Mandel, H.P. and Marcus, S.I. (1988). The psychology of underachievement – Differential diagnosis and differential treatment. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Montgomery, D. (1998). Reversing lower attainment – Developmental curriculum strategies for overcoming disaffection and underachievement. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Spence, J.T. (1983). Achievement and achievement motives – Psychological and sociological approaches. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Thurman, R. & Wolfe, K. (1999). Improving academic achievement of underachieving students in a heterogeneous classroom. Illinois, US: Master’s Action Research Project, Saint Xavier University and IRI/Skylight. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 431 549)


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