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Gifted students often under perform at university

I remember hearing that students that graduated number one in their high school classes had trouble succeeding at university.

< Details in stories that follow have been changed to protect privacy. >

This proved to be the case at my own high school. I remember learning that Mary Catherine Silver had withdrawn from her first-year studies at University of Toronto towards the end of her second semester.

This bit of information didn’t make sense to me, at the time. Mary Catherine had been at the top of our class, and many students that had ranked behind her had succeeded in their first-year studies.

My best friend didn’t withdraw from his first year, but he wasn’t a top performer, either. His mid-term grades in his first semester of engineering school clustered around 35%. He received 13% on his computer science mid-term and withdrew from that class.

He finished first semester with 50% in calculus and 51% in physics. He completed his computer science class during the summer semester.

In my private practice as a psychologist, I have seen several young, gifted adults as clients because they have under-performed in their first-year university studies. I have a better grasp of what’s going on than I did when I was 19-years-old, so I’m able to help them understand what’s happened and to turn things around.

Students that have performed near the top of their high school classes frequently haven’t had to learn how to study. They’ve simply had to listen to their teachers in class and then complete their assignments. For their efforts, they have been rewarded with grades in the 80s or 90s.

When my clients think back over their educational histories with me, they are quick to respond that yes, they didn’t do any homework in grades 1 through 8. Their grade school teachers assigned them work to do but they got it all done in the 20 minutes provided in class. They would complete the assignments in the first five minutes. Then, they would have to sit still, with nothing to do, for the next 15 minutes.

The students that didn’t finish the assignment in the first 20 minutes? These children learned to take the problems home and to work on them at the kitchen table. They may have asked a parent to show them how to solve the questions they didn’t understand. They also got used to the idea of not immediately knowing how to solve a problem.

But the gifted students that finished all their work in class didn’t get exposed to not being able to solve a problem. Not very often, anyway. They may have had this experience from time to time, but it certainly didn’t cause them any hardship. Chances are, when they didn’t understand the material, most of the other kids in the class didn’t understand it either.

The gifted students had the same problem in grades 9 through 12. They may have done some homework in these years, but they the assignments weren’t challenging. They would simply flip to the back of the text book, do the assigned problems, and then shut the book. They tell me they never read a text book in high school. They tell me they never read a university text book, either.


The problem for gifted students, as they enter university, is that they haven’t learned how to learn in either grade school or high school. They haven’t learned how to study. And when they arrived at university and discovered that the pace was much faster, and the assignments were more difficult, they don’t have the skills they required to succeed.

Many gifted students, when they found themselves in this position, didn’t know what to do, so they kept doing what they had done in the past. Their efforts had enabled them to succeed thus far, right? Except their lack of study skills meant they don’t know how to master the material they were being presented with, and so they failed at least some of their mid-terms and possibly their final exams.

These students under-performed, in large part, because they likely never opened a text book in high school. They hadn’t discovered that the way to solve tough problems was described in the books they had bought, mostly because there were no tough problems for them before.

When these students got to university, they bought the text books because everyone else was buying them. They knew they needed the books to find the problems that were assigned at the end of each chapter. The course syllabus, after all, told them to do problems 1, 3, 4b, 11, 18 and 29 at the end of Chapter 2. But they didn’t know that they should read Chapter 2 before they tried to complete the assignment.

The students in high school, by the way, that earned Bs rather than As, often had to study to earn their marks. So, they entered first year university with the skills they needed to succeed.

Some gifted students arrive at university with an advantage because they didn’t attend classes in high school. I know an extremely bright woman that got through both high school and engineering school this way. Katie didn’t attend classes in high school, which gave her the advantage of discovering text books in grade eleven and twelve, through necessity, before she reached university.

Other gifted students went to high schools where the advanced curriculum – and teachers – forced them to learn how to study.

When gifted students fall behind at university, it happens quite quickly. A typical semester is 15 weeks long, excluding exams, which doesn’t give much time for students to figure out what’s going on. Because the pace is so fast, gifted students have fallen behind before they know it, and then it may be too late to master the skills they need to catch up.

And so, they sometimes fail. If they are lucky, they will have a supportive parent who can help them find their feet and take a second shot at university. Several universities understand that under-performing in first year doesn’t mean you won’t graduate. These schools often put the under-performers on academic probation and give them a chance to succeed in second year before showing them the door.

In my best friend’s engineering class, the administration did something smart. They put students that had failed an exam in first semester into a separate group. They tutored these students for six weeks in the material they had failed, and then let them write their Christmas exams again. These students remained together and completed their winter semester six weeks late.

Of course, there are students who not only succeed in first year university, but who perform at the top of their classes all the way through. Somewhere along the way, during their first 18 years of life or so, they learned how to read a text book.

Or, here’s another possibility. They may be so gifted that they grasp the material presented in university the way other gifted students understood the material presented in high school.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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