Using Self-Regulated Learning to Reverse Underachievement in Talented Students

Sally M. Reis
Meredith J. Greene

Underachievement has received considerable attention in research literature about gifted and talented students and educators must explore the various reasons for these students’ underachievement if they hope to help reverse it (Fine & Pitts, 1980; Ford, 1992, 1996; Gallagher, 1991; Hall, 1983; Heacox, 1991; Mandel & Marcus, 1988; McCall, Evahn, & Kratzer, 1992; Reis, 1998; Reis & McCoach, 2000; Supplee, 1990). We should try to determine whether a student’s underachievement stems from serious physical, cognitive, or emotional issues, or a mismatch between the student and the school environment, or a personal characteristic like low self-regulation, low self-efficacy, or low self-motivation (Siegle, 2000; Siegle & McCoach, 2002). Appropriate intervention strategies must also be developed to address the specific area of need exhibited by the student in question. When we differentiate treatments to meet the needs of underachievers, we will more effectively begin to solve the problem of underachievement in both our schools and society.

In this article, some of the reasons students underachieve will be examined and one specific intervention, the acquisition of self-regulated learning skills, will be explained.

Interventions Related to Underachievement

Interventions to reverse gifted underachievement usually fall into two general categories: counseling and instructional interventions (Baum, Renzulli, & Hébert, 1995; Rimm, Cornale, Manos, & Behrend, 1989). Most counseling interventions concentrate on changing the personal and / or family dynamics that contribute to a student’s underachievement. These interventions may include individual, group, and / or family counseling. In most counseling situations, the counselor’s goal is not to force the underachiever to become a more successful student, but rather to help the student decide whether success is valued as a desirable goal, and if so, to help change counterproductive habits.

The most well known instructional interventions for gifted and talented students have been their placement in part-time or full-time special classrooms for underachievers (Supplee, 1980; Whitmore, 1980). In these specially designated classrooms, educators strive to create a favorable environment for student achievement by altering the traditional classroom organization. Usually, a smaller student/teacher ratio exists in which teachers create less conventional types of teaching and learning activities and provide options for choice and freedom in exercising control over their environment. In these classroom settings, gifted students are encouraged to utilize different learning strategies and to take initiative for self-directed behavior (Reis & McCoach, 2000).

Factors Contributing to Underachievement and its Reversal

No one factor causes academic underachievement. Family factors and school environment appear to contribute to underachievement according to most recent research. Biological, personal, and peer influences are also suggested as possible contributors. Although data are not uniform or complete, underachievers are generally believed to be from lower socioeconomic and larger families, and there are more males than females who underachieve in school. Overall, most researchers seem to agree that low self-esteem is a common characteristic among this population, although reasons for this vary. Some researchers believe that low self-concept comes from inability to achieve in school while others regard negative self-image as a root of underachievement.

Some students are able to reverse their academic underachievement without the assistance of formal interventions (Emerick, 1992). Several common factors appeared to play a part in the students’ reversal of their underachievement, including the development of interests and activities, parental support for independence, development of goals associated with grades, significant teachers, and changes in selves. Students who are more involved in extracurricular activities have also been found to be less likely to be underachievers. Other general findings include the impact that one teacher can have in reversing students’ underachievement behavior. If stimulated in class and given the opportunity to pursue topics of interest, gifted underachievers have been found to develop achievement-oriented behaviors. Research has also found that the earlier underachievers are identified, the better the opportunity for concerned adults to reverse the patterns of underachievement.

In a multi-year research study conducted by researchers at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (Reis, Hébert, Díaz, Ratley, Maxfield, 1995), researchers found that achievement and underachievement were not mutually exclusive concepts. In many cases, students who underachieved had been high achieving in the previous year or semester in school. Some of the high achieving students had experienced periods of underachievement in school and were supported in their achievement by a network of high achieving peers who refused to let their friends falter in school. High ability students who underachieved in high school acknowledged that their underachievement began in elementary school when they were not provided with appropriate levels of challenge. Students who underachieved in school did not demonstrate a strong belief in self, often came from families in which personal problems were evident, and were not resilient enough to overcome negative environmental factors such as gangs, drugs, and lack of access to resources.

Students who achieved in school acknowledged the importance of being grouped together in honors and advanced classes for academically talented students and participated in multiple extracurricular activities both after school and during the summer. Successful students also received support and encouragement from each other and from supportive adults including teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and mentors.

Summary of Research on Underachievement

The following major findings on the underachievement of talented and gifted students can be summarized from recent reviews of research (Reis, 1999; Reis & McCoach, 2000):

  • the beginnings of underachievement in many young people occur in elementary school—some students may underachieve as a direct result of an inappropriate, unchallenging, and/or unmotivating curriculum
  • few interventions have been tried to reverse underachievement
  • underachievement appears to be periodic and episodic, occurring in some years and not others and in some classes, but not others. However, eventually increasing episodes of underachievement will result in a more chronic pattern for many students
  • parental issues may interact with the behaviors of some underachievers
  • positive peer groups can play a major role in keeping underachievement from occurring in their closest friends
  • busier adolescents who are involved in clubs, extracurricular activities, sports, and religious activities are less likely to underachieve in school
  • helping gifted students develop regular patterns of work and practice seems to be very beneficial. Music, dance and art lessons, and regular time for homework and reading can be very helpful for developing positive self-regulation strategies.
  • caring adult in school can help reverse the process of underachievement. This adult may be a counselor, a coach or an academic content teacher.
  • one type of intervention will be effective for the full range of underachieving gifted students. A continuum of strategies and services is necessary if we are to systematically address this problem and interventions must match the problems or reasons that led to student underachievement in the first place.

It is clear from these reviews of research that the absence of self-regulation strategies can contribute to students’ underachievement, and teachers can make a difference by helping students acquire the skills of self-regulated learning. Successful students report that the use of self-regulated learning strategies accounted for most of their success in school (Zimmerman, 1989).

Defining Self-regulated Learning

Self-regulation is an integrated learning process, consisting of the development of a set of constructive behaviors that affect one’s learning (Zimmerman, 1989). These processes are planned and adapted to support the pursuit of personal goals in changing learning environments. A common set of self-regulation strategies exist, as well as an individual set of skills that each student must develop personally to be successful in school and life. Self-regulation skills can be taught, learned, and controlled (Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovatch, 1996).

Research on self-regulation usually shows that individual set of self-regulation strategies usually used by successful students fall into three categories: personal, behavioral, and environmental (Zimmerman, 1989, 1990, 1994). Personal strategies involve how a student organizes and interprets information and include:

  • organizing and transforming information (outlining, summarizing, highlighting, using flashcards or index cards, drawing pictures, diagrams, or charts, using concept webs and mapping).
  • goal setting/planning and standard setting (sequencing, timing, time management, pacing)
  • keeping records and monitoring (note-taking, listing errors made, recording grades, keeping a all drafts of assignments, maintaining a portfolio)
  • written and/or verbal rehearsing and memorizing (using mnemonic devices, mental imagery, and/or repetition; teaching someone else the material; making sample questions).

Behavioral strategies occur when students check their own progress or quality of work by examining the actions they take during the learning process (Zimmerman, 1989, 1990, 1995). Students must learn to self-evaluate and self-consequate. In self-evaluation, students analyze the learning task to determine what is expected by the teacher and desired by themselves and reflect on their self-instructions, feedback, and attentiveness. When they self-consequate, students arrange their own rewards to motivate or punish themselves for failing to meet their goals. Then they use self-reinforcement and learn to delay gratification until they have achieved this specific goal.

Environmental strategies for self-regulated learning involve the use of external resources and the adaptation of the students’ environment (Zimmerman, 1989, 1990, 1995). This includes seeking information from nonsocial sources such as the library and Internet; seeking social assistance from peers, teachers, other adults; emulating exemplary models; reviewing records; rereading notes, tests, and textbooks; and structuring the study environment for optimal results (selecting or arranging the physical setting; isolating, eliminating, or minimizing distractions; breaking up study periods and spreading them over time).

Self-Regulation and Gifted Students

Current research indicates that some gifted students possess better self-regulated learning strategies than their peers, however gifted students may have done very well in school without using good self-regulation strategies because of a combination of their high abilities and/or an unchallenging curriculum (Reis et al., 1995). If learning is relatively easy for someone, less effort, organization and other self-regulated activities are expended. Social conditions or personal issues may prevent students from developing self-regulated learning strategies. Some students who already have some of these strategies encounter social or personal issues that may prevent them from using these strategies regularly. Encouragement to do so and support for using self-regulation strategies can be helpful for these students. Other gifted and talented students display perfectionism and need to learn to strive for excellence (their personal best) rather than perfection. Some talented students with high potential find it difficult to learn self-regulation when it is not taught, modeled, or rewarded by the adults in their home and family. Even if students interact regularly with adults who demonstrate self-regulation, they may fail to use these skills themselves due to peer pressure or refuse to use the strategies their parents or teachers regularly employ at home or school.

Compared with low achieving students, high achievers set more specific learning goals, use a variety of learning strategies, self-monitor more often, and adapt their efforts more systematically (Ruban, 2000). The quality and quantity of self-regulation processes is crucial. We must recognize that one self-regulation strategy will not work for all students, and that the use of only a few strategies will not work optimally for a person on all tasks or occasions. It is important that students learn to use multiple self-regulatory learning skills rather than single strategies. They must also learn that their goals and their choice of self-regulation strategies have to be adjusted regularly as they experience different content areas and different teachers. Teachers should try to work with students to help them shift from performance goals and move towards mastery goals, focusing on understanding the material, persisting when they are challenged or their performance fails. This is especially critical for talented students who seldom experience high levels of challenge.

Self-regulation skills

According to Zimmerman (1989), self-regulated learning involves the regulation of three general aspects of academic learning. First, self-regulation of behavior involves the active control of the various resources students have available to them, such as their time, their study environment (for example, the place in which they study), and their use of others such as peers and faculty members to help them. Second, self-regulation of motivation and affect involves controlling and changing motivational beliefs such as self-efficacy and goal orientation, so that students can adapt to the demands of a course. In addition, students can learn how to control their emotions and affect (such as anxiety) in ways that improve their learning. Finally, self-regulation of cognition involves the control of various cognitive strategies for learning, such as the use of deep processing strategies that result in better learning and performance than students showed previously (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994; Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1993).

In many classrooms, teachers assume most of the responsibility for the learning process and students may begin to depend on this model of learning. Talented students can be taught to become more self-regulated learners by acquiring specific strategies that are both successful for them and that enable them to increase their control over their own behavior and environment. The development of good self-regulation usually involves the systematic use of the following: self-observation (monitoring and recording own performance); self-judgment (comparing performance with a standard or goal, e.g., re-examining answers, checking procedures; rating answers in relation to answer sheet, another person’s); and self-reaction (personal processes such as goal-setting and metacognitive planning, self-administered praise or criticism, rehearsing, memorizing, structuring the environment or task, and asking for help.

Most researchers agree that the best learning occurs when someone carefully observes and considers his/her own behaviors and acts upon what one has learned. This means that students learn to decrease negative behaviors and increase positive behaviors. Therefore, students who are self-regulated must learn to continually ask themselves “Does this strategy work for me in this situation?” In order to self-regulate, students must shift their focus from comparing their performance to peers to self-comparisons, and from being reactive to being proactive learners. Self-regulated behavior usually decreases the discrepancy between ideal and desired goals. Goals direct activities, and students must learn not only that there are different ways to attain goals, but also how to select the best way to complete a specific task. Learners with high levels of self-regulation have good control over the attainment of their goals.

Teaching Self-regulation strategies

A teacher’s role in helping talented students gain self-regulation will be challenging and initial attempts to teach self-regulation strategies are seldom successful. Why? First, it takes time and practice to gain effective habits. Preliminary efforts must be refined based on student’s feedback, performance, and their own reflection. Adopting principles of a learning academy model (Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovatch, 1996) can make teaching self-regulated learning less difficult. This model encourages teachers to shift responsibility for learning to students, giving them more choice and control over their learning tasks. Teachers should also model the use of effective self-regulatory techniques. When we consider gifted education programs and practices, these learning academies may resemble enrichment opportunities like self-selected Type III investigations (Renzulli, 1977) or enrichment clusters (Renzulli & Reis, 1997).

Some common instructional practices are effective in helping students learn self-regulation. The regular use of the following practices is recommended:

  1. Guide learners’ self-beliefs, goal setting, and expectations
    • help students frame new information or feedback in a positive rather than a negative manner (e.g., “keeping track of your homework assignments will help you manage this course successfully,” rather than “if you don’t keep track you will fail.”)
    • provide specific cues for using self-regulatory strategies

  2. Promote reflective dialogue
    • teacher modeling of reflective practices (think aloud)
    • student practice with reflective dialogue
    • group discussions to think through problems/cases (collaborative learning)

  3. Provide corrective feedback
    • performance standards must be clear and perceived as attainable
    • phrase feedback (positive or negative) as a statement about the task of learning, not about the learner

  4. Help learners make connections between abstract concepts
    • use case-based instructions or examples that students come up with themselves
    • use hands-on learning activities
    • help students learn to separate relevant from irrelevant information (i.e., help them know where and how to focus their attention; guide their reference standards)

  5. Help learners link new experiences to prior learning
    • use experiential learning activities
    • focus on application of knowledge in broader contexts
    • integrate real-life examples with classroom information

In addition to these common instructional practices, teachers can guide individual students through the process of a learning task by taking them through the phases of successful self-regulated learning. Consider this example:

Alaina is an eighth grade student who was identified as gifted in first grade. She read at the seventh grade level by the time she finished second grade and has always scored at the 99% across all areas on standardized achievement tests. She excels in language arts, but has extremely high scores across all areas. Although Alaina does not like math, she had coasted through the math curriculum from first through seventh grade, doing minimal homework and getting top grades. Because of her scores on achievement tests and previous grades, she is recommended for an advanced algebra class in eighth grade and encounters, for her first time in school, some challenge in mathematics. She struggles with a few concepts and begins to tell her parents that she is really not smart in math. She quits whenever she finds a homework problem she cannot solve and tells her parents she will ask the teacher the next day for help. She continues to do her homework each time it is assigned but completes only the problems that she can easily do and gets help from her friends and teacher the next day if she cannot quickly and correctly solve a problem. The answers to problems are in the back of the book so that after a few minutes of work, if she has not solved the problem, she looks it up but fails to learn how to solve the problem. She fails two tests, becomes convinced she is terrible at math and considers dropping out of the algebra class. How can she gain the self-regulation skills she needs to succeed in a more challenging class?

Through the use of some simple questions, teachers can guide students through the three cyclical phases that seem to emerge in the acquisition of self-regulation skills. Once these skills are learned, students must practice them with less and less teacher guidance.

The first phase precedes the actual performance and sets the stage for action. In this preaction phase, students map out their tasks, thereby minimizing the unknown which ca help develop a positive mindset. Realistic expectations can make the task more appealing. Goals must be set as specific outcomes, arranged in order from short-term. Teachers can ask talented students to consider the following: When will I start? Where will I do the work? How will I get started? What conditions will help or hinder my learning activities?

Alaina, for example, must be helped to think about her algebra homework and reflect on what she can do to be more successful. Is there a better time or place to do her homework? Should she begin it in school with her friends who are doing better than she is in algebra? Should she plan to spend at least five minutes on a problem before giving up and moving on? Should she have a friend standing by to help either in person or on the phone (a study buddy)? Should she ask for a tutor?

The second phase of self-regulated learning involves processes during learning and the active attempt to utilize specific strategies to become more successful. Talented students should be asked to consider the following during the performance of a specific task: Am I accomplishing what I hoped to do? Am I being distracted? Is this taking more time than I thought? Under what conditions do I accomplish the most? What questions can I ask while I am working? How can I encourage myself to keep working (including self-talk-come on, get your work done so you can watch that television show or read your magazine!)

Alaina, for example, has to consider her performance in math as opposed to other content areas. When frustration increases, should Alaina stop and take a break? Should she do her math homework first in the afternoon, rather than putting it off until later in the evening? Should she have background music or work in silence? She should learn to use and consider the success of some of the strategies she has thought about in the preaction phase.

The final phase of self-regulated learning involves self-reflection after the performance for a self-evaluation of outcomes compared to goals. Talented students should learn to ask themselves the following: Did I accomplish what I planned to do? Was I distracted and how did I get back to work? Did I plan enough time or did I need more time than I thought? Under what conditions did I accomplish the most work?

Alaina might ask, “What did I do differently?” “Did it work?” Was a change in time or work habits effective at helping me to solve more algebra problems? Did calling a friend who was doing algebra homework at the same time (by prearranged planning) make a difference? Did setting minimum time frame help? Did praising herself aloud during this time have a positive impact (All right, I did it!! Yes, I solved that problem!!)

The teaching of self-regulation strategies can be used to successfully increase students’ self-regulation and enhance academic achievement. It is hoped that some of the suggestions in this article will be helpful to teachers interested in trying to help students gain self-regulation skills. During this academic year, researchers at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) will continue to study self-regulation. In particular, researchers will be implementing various interventions related to the use of self-regulation strategies to reverse underachievement in gifted and talented students. If you are interested in knowing more about this or other NRC/GT studies, check our website at

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