The Academic Underachievement in Schools

Academic underachievement occurs when a student with certain characteristic of having ability to do well in academic but, perform below his or her potential (Voegeli, 2008). The school then split academic underachievers based on their academic performance known as streaming or tracking, which is supposed to help academic underachievers.

According to Heacox (1991), some students aim the highest in school, but they do not how. The reason why is they are left behind. In order that, there are several strategies and steps have been taken to help academic underachievers.

Characteristics of the Academic Underachievers

It is important to us to have knowledge as clear as crystal about recognising the academic underachievers. Probably is easy to describe academic underachievers among the students as students cannot perform in the class and achieve his level, so he has become what we can call underachiever, but isn’t that simple? Underachiever is in the eyes of the beholder. If it easy to identified, so that it easy to supported.

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In this essay, I would like to conclude all of those characteristics of academic underachievers in the journal of social science, from the University of the Free State, Rome, Italy published in November 2014.

Several researchers contend gender is one of the characteristics to identify academic underachievers. According to Lau & Chan (2001), the boys were the most prominent to become academic underachievers compared to the girls. Personality also influences the characteristics of academic underachievers. Henley, Ramsey and Algozzine (2002) stated that, the most students who are not like school having characteristics of personality which are difficulties of social-emotion and behavioural disorder.

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They also have low self-esteem and self-concept to do well in academic. It reflects their task in school and not believes in their own potential respectively.  By the way, some of them are have high self-esteem which is tough enough to face the difficulties but some are so dependent seeking a support because lack of confidence. Academic underachievers have more lack than others, especially in lack of emotion such as lack of self-control and show very poor self-regulation. If they tend not to control of their emotion in early childhood, so that they will not having high achievements in high schools.

Basically, academic underachievers who have an internal emotional – anxiety can distracted the quality of their schoolwork. Then they will become more hyperactive like ADHD symptoms. When it happens they avoid the entire emotion surround them then choose to alienate them, it so called social withdrawal. Even though, academic underachievers also have external emotional – more too aggressive and some depression. Why they are so aggressive? According to Boyd and Bee (2006), if underachiever is having aggressive they intend to injured people and throw items around them. Normally, depressed students are having problems with concentration ability and also negative thinking.

Meanwhile, negative attitude and manners among students with academic underachievement, there also students that do not take serious of schoolwork. The expedient students who are easygoing, irresponsible; feel everything is fine even they break the promise. But, they are very social oriented compared to other students academically.

Speaking of being success, underachievers with internal locus of control believe in themselves and they make an assumption that they will be successfully. But, those with external locus of control are not believe in themselves and very dependent. So let us take a look according to what Reis and McCoach (2000) stated, it is similar point that students with underachievement have a fear which is some fear to fail and some fear to success. With these all negative attitudes, that makes them have negative thinking about schools, which is lead to absence to schools and other bad behavior would be expected.

Most of underachievers have problem to memorise, so that they have low grade in their performing sequence tasks. Of course their thinking of styles is differing from academic achievers, either to have different thinking or convergent thinking styles. Otherwise, underachieves cannot make a right judgments due to lack of insight and critical thinking ability. They are unable, do not know, and do not understand on how to relate new or existing knowledge with prior knowledge. No wonder they use maladaptive strategies which is inappropriate and useless, to survive in normal life.

Researchers mentioned that underachievers have no set their goal setting, maybe no purpose and no aim to achieve in their academic. But certain academic underachievers also are creative person, for sure not more than learners but better than low learners. They also have special characteristics that may be valuable. Academic underachievers have interest and giving commitment in practical works better than theoretical ways and they are committed to self-selected practices.

Knowing that academic underachievers have many types of characteristics, Heacox (1991) in his book mentioned nine profiles about underachievers, some of them, had been discussed in earlier.

‘I don’t need this’ – this is what the rebel think. The rebel does not think activities and task are important, so they refuse to accept what is the real life. The rebel who has live in their own world because they do not believe in academic and real world. Differ to The Victim who is refusing to come to school. They also irresponsible person and lack in the academic.

For Distracted Learner, they have other problem not related to academic and schools but affect their performance and their grade in schools. They concerns about personal matters than schoolwork. But for Struggling Learner, they did very well in early childhood with a bit effort so, when the study become harder, they cannot compute. Same as The Conformist are very success in school but decide not to stick on it as they want to blend with their peers by not doing so well.

Result of fear making mistakes Stressed Learner also known as perfectionist stop trying to excel in academic. Single-Sided Learner are good in schools but in certain subjects, so they concentrate only subject they are good. The rest, are underachieve.

Complacent Learner are very comfortable in schools, seems do not have any difficulties in academic and adults expect they can do better in school. However The Bored Learner is the special one, very talented in academic. In order that they advance than their ages, they become bored with the academic that prepared for them, so that they become lazy. If no action has been taken, it may be a lost to academic.

In conclusion, academic underachievers are not the students, for teachers, schools and community should leave them behind. They must be guided properly after they identified and give support. Well, Einstein also one of the underachievers and not did well in school and academic.

Streaming According to Academic Ability

What is streaming?  According to Oxford Dictionary, “put the students in groups of the same age and ability to be taught together”. In some countries, it is to split students according to their level – high, medium or low. Then they can accept the lesson and tasks based on their ability. It would prevent the poor students become poorer and excellent student will lose their interest.

Do you agree with streaming according to academic ability?

Yes. Absolutely I am agreed.


Firstly, by splitting students based on their ability can make the progress of the students’ performance. According to the researcher based in school in London last year, when they stream students by their ability, there is a progress between brightest students and underachievers are increasing. Students in high class achieved more academic progress than students attend schools that no streaming. The main focus of streaming for secondary school but it shows start as young as age six years old much more better. For example; student A in Standard Three able to read a passage in textbook, so that he or she should in the class with same ability  level, but another student B also in Standard Three but only able to read a few words and not recognize other words. Then, they should study in the same class or not? Normally, they must be separate to different class. Teacher will teach student B more than student A. If they are in the same class, for sure student A become bored as he learn the same thing. This situation raises him being a ‘The Bored Learner’ according to Heacox (1991).

Secondly, it easier to teacher to teach and educate them based on their level. It makes teaching period run smoothly and every students can get the lessons. It is fair to both sides, fair and square. Teacher can work follow the teaching plan and students with the high, medium and low class received their lessons. Students in higher class, learn more speed than lower class. From this splitting approach, they learn based on their level. Lower class learn something not same as higher and medium class. Or else, they educated same topic but in different way. It all in teacher’s teaching plan for their class.

Thirdly, teacher prepared teaching plan or lesson plan based on their class. Teaching plan must be same depend on the level, but maybe for part suggested activity or teacher and students responses may differ. Normally, student in higher class still can relate new lesson to the prior knowledge. It is easier to clear the thing if they can relate it with prior knowledge. Teacher have discussed between of them based on their class. They can plan suitable lesson for each level. For teacher educate underachievers, should well-trained as they are not as we expected they can be. For example; one student raging and crying throwing books and other things, teacher should know what to do.

By the way, actually there are pro and cons regarding this issue. But if I am not agreed with the streaming according to academic ability, it is because students with lower academic stay in the same class. It will give them big impact, more too negative than positive. By grouping students to higher, medium and lower class, there would be any feeling not satisfied. They do not want to be labeled as poor students or weak students. Mostly students want to be seen equal same as other students.

Splitting and mixing around with lower class could kill their self-esteem. Self- esteem is in deep inside and hard to be cured. They would think they are lack in education and they are not trying to improve their grade. Even that, the achievement also not equal between achievers and underachievers. Higher class will gain the success but lower class will fall.

To conclude, streaming students according to academic ability is a good effort to solve problem regarding students performance to excel in academic. By separating students into higher, medium and lower class can meet the philosophy of education that proposed by philosophers entire the world. But there also a research about streaming is not an equitable. Well, according to researcher, if we want to reduce inequality, we must eliminate the system of streaming in every school. If we want to increase the achievement then decrease both practice in school system.

Steps Taken to Help Academic Underachievers

Academic underachievers continue to be worried in our community. There are researchers to do the research among society about underachievers perform, how they did in schools and how they adapt lesson in class. There are two main roles should take part, involved in this solution matter;


Firstly, for academic underachievers, all starts from home and as parents play an important role in this matter. Parents should monitor their children in early age, better. When they start talking and playing, observe and monitor their attitude and behaviour. If they can be traced or detected earlier maybe they can be cured being an academic underachiever. If parents suspected the child have emotional problem, book a date by arranging with an expertise in early childhood psychology. Detecting earlier if they have any learning disability maybe can prevent it become worse.

Secondly, if the child was diagnosed as an underachiever, parents should check with doctor, about their meal, nutrition, sleep patterns and others related. They are proof that those with learning problem can get high score in certain subjects, called The Single-Sided Achiever according to Heacox (1991). They show interest in certain subjects and give full attention and achieve highest score but certain subjects they are underachieve.   

Thirdly, parents should collaborate in child’s class in any certain programme. By participating in child’s class can help teacher and the child become more confident. The teacher also feels relief with parents’ involvement. This situation will help teacher achieve teaching plan as prepared, and also can help in increasing academic achievement.

Fourthly, when your child achieves their level academic, parents should focus on celebrate child’s success. They would be happy with a moral support from their parents. Praise them by doing a good job. It can improve their self-esteem and self-concept as well. Even it a small matter to us, but not to them.

Fifthly, parents also should look for outdoor activities that your child can involve. Make them participate in healthy activities such running programme, drawing or colouring contest. All these social activities can develop and maintain value of friendship. It also makes them understanding people around them and provides them with support.

Sixthly, parents should speak to their children by asking them what they want to be when they grow up, what is their interest, what they like to do when they are alone. They feel that parents take care of them and feel safe. Quit nagging to a child of academic underachievement, because they have very low self-esteem.

Lastly, parents also must able to accept with a child of academic underachievement. Be patient as it need time to them, do not expect an immediate results that makes them pressure. It is not helping them, but the situation getting worse.


Firstly, school should conduct a test to identify students with academic underachievement. From this they would know academic ability of their students. All schools in Malaysia should make an ability test or similar with it. This is how we can trace academic underachievers and support them, by giving counseling or advice to their family.

Secondly, after school identify academic underachievers, they should be separate or split – known as streaming, which is divide to successful group and underachievers group. There are higher, medium and lower class. According to research recently, when streaming providing in schools, the bright students become brighter and underachiever student have some progress because they learn in the class conducted by well trained teacher.

Thirdly, as mentioned above, teacher must go training by the private or government sector to fulfill the need as the special need teacher. This is the step taken by schools and teacher to face and handle students with underachievement wisely. Teacher can educate them by giving the proper education and at least they will get the lesson same as the achievers. Even not use the same method as long as they will not leave behind.

Forthly, environment in the class as a role to learning so, teacher must change the environment of the classroom more to student friendly, which is make them have interest to learn or at least want to come to school.

Fifthly, teacher should be applying more of the practical activities than theorical works. Mostly of the student of academic underachievement love to do hands on activity than reading or writing.

Lastly, besides be patient with underachievers, teacher should praise them with nice words. Use the suggestion word stated by psychologist, what is called descriptive praise. Then, they will have fun to learn and improve self-esteem at once.


Speaking of step taken by parents and teachers should be praised and be an example for those who have academic underachievers. But, are there any parents who are not taking care of their children with underachievement? Probably? Private and government sector has taken more steps and organize more training to train teachers, but if parents no knowledge or not take serious regarding their children’s education, effortless.

Same goes to if parents put some effort to help their children but did not get cooperation from schools and teachers, so the results still the same, plus the students will feel useless and their low  self-esteem increasing to worst. So that, from parents’ side and schools side, both need to cooperate to help the children. Thus, student will did not get the proper education and not reach the objectives of the learning.


In conclusion, all the efforts needed so much money to train teachers, to conducts the test, change the classroom environment, buy extra materials for teaching and pay more teachers. All the efforts need a concrete financial. Are we willing to spend the amount and energy to help academic underachievers? What happen if we help them but there is no changes, they still the same person? Would we blame them or blame us?


  1. Adam G. (1992). Educational Leadership: Is Ability Grouping Equitable? [Electronic version]. ASCD, 50, 11-17.
  2. Nooe E. C. & Dipane H. (2014). Academic Underachievement of Learners at School: A Literature Review [Electronic version]. MCSER, 5, 828-833.
  3. Nsgtorg. (2016). Nsgtorg. Retrieved 5 April, 2016, from
  4. The Guardian. (2014, September 25). Richard Adams School streaming helps brightest pupils but nobody else, say researchers. Retrieved April 8,2016, from

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The Academic Underachievement in Schools. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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