Talent-spot the smart alecks

September 15, 2006

Tried-and-tested teaching methods are fine, but how do you cope with a gifted student who knows it all? An early start in research could be a way, but their youth could pose problems, says Harriet Swain

Smartarse. Not only has he already read everything you suggest, he disagrees with most of it - even though it's written by you - and he backs up his arguments with stuff you've never heard of. Doesn't he know there is such a thing as a syllabus?

Probably, given that it sounds as if he knows most things. Realising as soon as possible that one of your students is brainier than average is important in helping to support them throughout their university career, says Ken Sloan, director of corporate services for the National Association for Gifted and Talented Youth. But he warns that it is not always easy.

"Look beyond the obvious. 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 academic 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 particularly 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 spot and 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 making an important point three times - saying what you are going to say, saying it and saying what you have said - 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. A student who quickly understands what you are trying to say may also be turned off by a long follow-up explanation.

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 young people of high ability. 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 contribution they are going to make and the next challenge they will face,"

he says. "Whether that's going into academia or employment, just doing more in your subject won't necessarily give them the skills base they are going to need."

Zana Bailey, education consultant for the National Association for Gifted Children, says: "Anyone working with gifted children or students must be aware that they may not be gifted in all areas. Most have areas of very high ability and areas where, although not necessarily below average, they are less able." This can put huge pressures on a student. They may have to work much harder to perform consistently in all areas to meet expectations.

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. If they regularly achieved top marks at school, they may find it emotionally and psychologically difficult never to be able to achieve 100 per cent. Tutors need to be sympathetic to this.

Freeman says you have to ensure that students know what university counselling services are available and how to access them. Children who have been accelerated a year or more 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, and it is worth finding out about whether your institution does and what it involves.

Warwick University, for example, runs an undergraduate 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.

Just as the National Association for Gifted and Talented Youth has found it motivating for school pupils of high ability to be exposed to new ideas in a particular subject beyond the curriculum, Sloan says the same is likely to be true for undergraduates.

Zara Tennyson, a third-year scholarship student in French and Spanish at Oxford University, supports this. She says she is most motivated by the feeling that a lecturer is genuinely interested in her ideas and treats her as an equal. "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 Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth: www.nagty.ac.uk  

National Association for Able Children in Education: www.nace.co.uk  

European Council for High Ability: www.echa.ws National Association for Gifted Children: www.nagcbritain.org.uk  

Warwick undergraduate scholarship scheme: www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/cap/landt/rbl/urss/info/  


Identify particularly able students early on

Give them as much personal attention as possible

Encourage them to think creatively

Involve them in real research

Don't expect them to be brilliant at everything

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