Gifted and challenging students

Tried and tested teaching methods are not always suitable for talented young students who feel they know it all. An early start in research may be the answer

February 7, 2008

Realising as soon as possible that one of your students is brainier than average is important in helping to support him throughout his university career, says Ken Sloan, director of corporate services for the National Association for Gifted and Talented Youth.

“Look beyond the obvious,” he adds. “Don’t expect that people have performed as well as they possibly could in the school system, because that measures only a bit of it,” he says.

He adds that you should make as effective use as possible of the personal tutor sessions when students start at university, and at the beginning of each year, so you can identify students’ capabilities and needs.

Johanna Raffan, director of the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace), says that schools have become better at identifying those who are gifted, but some youngsters do not blossom until they reach university and find something they are passionate about. She advises becoming a member of an organisation such as Nace or the European Council for High Ability, which can give advice on how to support such individuals.

Joan Freeman, professor in the department of lifelong learning and education at Middlesex University, who has researched gifted children and adults, says you need to be aware that some talented students may find things boring that others don't.

While repeating an important point can be a valuable teaching method, it can be less effective for those who got it the first time and switch off, perhaps missing important later points.

Varying your teaching is really possible only in one-to-one teaching, something that is particularly appreciated by high-ability students, she says.

Raffan says it is important to encourage them to take intellectual risks. But they also need to be able to talk to others. “Thinking only on a higher level is fine, provided you can communicate,” she says.

Sloan says teachers often think about what more they can offer academically for such young people. But these students are often naturally motivated academically and the real challenge is to broaden them in non-academic areas. “University education should prepare them for the next challenge they will face, whether that’s going into academia or employment,” he says.

Zana Bailey, education consultant for the National Association for Gifted Children, says: “Gifted students must be aware that they may not be gifted in all areas. Most have areas of very high ability as well as areas where they are less able.” This can put huge pressures on a student.

She says: “Inconsistent performance is often interpreted as lack of genuine ability when it can indicate a student who has the ability but also needs support in specific areas.”

You also need to watch out for perfectionism. “Many students struggle to deal with failing, or even just not being at the top,” Bailey says. Tutors need to be sympathetic to this.

Freeman says you have to ensure that students know what university counselling services are available. Children who have been accelerated and are younger than other students need particular attention, she says.

But encouraging able students to reach beyond what is expected of their peer group is still useful. A number of universities offer particularly able students the chance to participate in academic research.

Warwick University, for example, runs an research scholarship scheme that allows undergraduates to undertake small research projects closely linked to work being done in the university. Students are awarded bursaries and costs of materials needed for the projects.

Zara Tennyson, a third-year scholarship student in French and Spanish at Oxford University, says she is most motivated by the feeling that a lecturer is genuinely interested in her ideas. “The knowledge that your tutors respect your ideas and are listening and that you have shared interests – that’s what works for students who are interested in their work.”

Further information

National Association for Able Children in Education

European Council for High Ability

National Association for Gifted Children

Warwick undergraduate scholarship scheme

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