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Why do some students underperform?

Why do some students underperform?

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Why do some of our students consistently underperform and fail to fulfil their potential? This question has puzzled teachers for a very long time. Fortunately for us, new research has started to emerge that might have an answer. It turns out that there are three simple things that make a big difference.

Underachievement can be seen as the difference between what can be expected and what is really being achieved. Researchers recently tracked over 1400 students over the course of a school year and measured how well they did compared to their predicted marks. They compared students who underperformed, with those who performed as expected and with those who over-performed.

They found that underachieving students were:

  1. Less likely to implement effective learning strategies and score lower for having ‘learning goals’. Specifically, “when underachieving students plan, they evaluate and control the learning rhythm to a less extent”
  2. Had poorer relationships with their parents
  3. Had less emotional stability

Learning strategies

This study highlights the importance of helping students develop metacognitive skills that helps them to become better learners. This includes teaching them about what works (for good examples of this, check out our blogs on Retrieval Practice and Spacing). It also emphasises the importance of being able to prepare, monitor and evaluate one’s own learning (which is a key part of improving metacognition).

Parental relationships

Previous research sheds some light on why quality parental relationships are so important for student’s academic performance. Specifically, by having high expectations, encouraging good reading habits and providing clear boundaries have all been associated with enhanced academic achievements.

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Emotional stability

It has been long known in cognitive psychology the detrimental effect that stress has on mental wellbeing, life satisfaction and academic achievement. Excessive stress hinders how much a student learns and later remembers. Interestingly, a new research paper suggests that by educating students of the benefits of stress, and teaching them self-regulation strategies, we can help reduce the negative impacts it can have.

Cause for optimism

This study is fascinating as it sheds light on one of the most fundamental questions facing schools… ‘how do we help ensure every child maximises their abilities?’ What is encouraging, is that the three areas detailed above are not fixed traits. They can be improved and developed.

By teaching students how to learn more efficiently (and ensure that the struggling students are implementing these strategies), working closely with and educating parents on how they can best help their child, and finally, showing students strategies to improve their self-regulation and emotional control, we can help bridge the gap between potential and reality.

Final thoughts

With schools now using Progress 8 scores (which measures the value the school has added to each child) instead of how many students get A*-C, any research that looks specifically at why some students struggle is particularly valuable.

There are many factors that combine and contribute to how well a child does at school. This study could offer a valuable insight for all teachers and school leaders as to what they can do to best help students who underperform. Central to this seems to be helping them better utilise effective learning strategies. If they can do this, then we offer each and every child the chance to shine and thrive during their education.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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