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18 April 2024

Student Life
& Society

Why especially gifted students sometimes hit a wall

Gifted students often get stuck in their studies. Yet, in higher education, there are hardly any provisions for this group. VU is in the process of setting up a coaching program.

The common perception of giftedness is that if you’re gifted, you effortlessly breeze through two degrees and only score straight A’s. While this may hold true for some gifted individuals, it doesn’t accurately represent the majority. Many gifted students encounter varying degrees of challenges in an educational system tailored to the average student.  

Gifted students often drop out because the education system fails to align with their way of thinking. While primary and secondary education have seen the emergence of special programs, teaching methods, and sometimes even separate schools for gifted students, higher education offers far fewer accommodations or support.  

“An estimated ten percent of students are considered gifted,” says Christopher van den Berg, a student assistant for Student and Educational Affairs (SOZ) who delved into the subject. “At VU, that translates to about 3.000 students.” In the general population, the proportion of gifted individuals is around 2 percent. Gifted individuals often fail to reach their full potential because they struggle in education or the workforce.  

Provisions for gifted students

The HB-HO network ( supports gifted students. Some universities and colleges employ specialists dedicated to guiding gifted students. VU does not currently have this. Gifted students facing challenges can approach their study advisors. The research on gifted students at VU and HvA was funded by the Wisselstroom program, aimed at helping students find the right place in higher education more quickly.

Perfectionism and fear of failure  

Although an IQ score of over 130 is often used as a threshold, there are also certain characteristics that define gifted individuals: intense emotional experiences, a highly developed ethical sense, perfectionism, fear of failure, and a critical mindset. Gifted individuals also tend to think differently and process information on a higher abstract level. Additionally, they often feel lonely because they rarely encounter people who think like them and truly understand them.  

All these traits can be reasons why gifted individuals struggle in education. Another significant factor is that gifted students may not have learned how to study earlier in their school careers because the material came easily to them. When they suddenly have to study at university, they may have no idea how to do so. “Combine that with perfectionism and fear of failure, and you understand why this group sometimes hits a wall,” says Van den Berg.  

Together with a colleague and a giftedness specialist from HvA, Van den Berg conducted an exploratory study on the challenges faced by gifted students. They administered questionnaires to 161 students and selected 31 students for interviews, including 15 from VU. The term ‘giftedness’ was not mentioned in the questionnaire because students may not always recognise this trait in themselves, and it carries a certain stigma. Students were selected based on their characteristics.   

Limited knowledge  

Other studies indicate that one-third of gifted individuals successfully complete their studies, one-third could benefit from some support, and one-third experience significant challenges. Van den Berg and his colleague primarily reached the first two groups in the VU and HvA study. “Finding the one-third that truly needs help is much more challenging, partly because these students often don’t realise they are gifted,” says Van den Berg.  

Issues often arise due to perfectionism or because they never learned how to plan their studies. Although VU offers courses on topics such as planning, “the approach is slightly different for gifted individuals than for other students,” says Van den Berg, “and it would be helpful if they had somewhere to turn to with counsellors knowledgeable about giftedness.” The study revealed a significant demand for a contact person with expertise in giftedness.  

Such specific attention is currently lacking at VU. In this regard, the university could learn from primary education, where accommodations for gifted students, such as enrichment programs and teaching methods offering extra challenges, have emerged over the past fifteen years. Additionally, many schools have someone on the team with expertise in giftedness.  

Accelerate, deepen, broaden  

Educational adjustments for gifted students often come down to three things: acceleration, enrichment, and extension. Acceleration involves allowing gifted students to skip certain parts of the curriculum because otherwise, they become bored. This is also relevant in higher education. Universities have become more school-like over the past decades, with many small assignments to keep students engaged. However, this can hinder motivation for gifted students.  

For enrichment, it’s important that it’s not too difficult to combine studies or minors. Students have varying experiences with this, as Van den Berg’s interviews revealed. “Some programs are very rigid and inflexible, but there was also someone who studies at VU and Leiden University, both of which offer flexible programs,” he explains.  

Van den Berg is still unsure about how VU will shape the support for gifted students. “We are considering a coaching program, likely through the student deans,” he says.  

The need for contact with like-minded individuals is significant among the target group, Van den Berg and his HvA colleague discovered. “We organised a few meetings: an afternoon on time management at VU, an internet chat & chill session at HvA. These gatherings were well attended, with both students and staff. I know that WhatsApp groups have formed, and some people still maintain contact with each other.” 

‘They often feel lonely because they rarely encounter people who think like them and truly understand them’


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