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Developmental Problems of Academically Unchallenged Pupils

Background and aims

Recent studies have suggested that the shortfall of challenge in lessons is a phenomenon in Swiss schools. A lack of academic challenge presents a wider reaching risk constellation with regard to further personal and academic development. The absence of academic challenge can, but does not necessarily lead to low academic achievement. This current Swiss National Science Foundation project investigates the relationship between the lack of challenge and developmental problems in the area of intellectual giftedness.
The aim of this research project is to identify personal, familial and academic characteristics that enable gifted pupils to deal with the lack of academic challenge (in the case of gifted high achievers) and characteristics that make dealing with academic challenge difficult (in the case of gifted underachievers).


The aim of the study is to identify personality traits which enable highly gifted pupils to deal beneficially with a lack of challenges at school (in the case of gifted high achievers) or make it harder for them to deal with the lack of challenges (in the case of gifted underachievers).


The study consists of a psychological and a neuroscientific section. The entire sample (n=168) answered questionnaires on a variety of themes (regulating emotion, attribution, motivation to perform well, general satisfaction, psychological strain). A subset (n=20) were also examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how they processed negative emotions. In this part of the study, neuroanatomical measurements were also performed by means of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).


  1. Gifted underachievers tend to display more grey matter in e.g. the limbic system, the emotional centre of our brain.
  2. This could be evidence for a phenomenon known in psychology as oversensitivity, i.e. gifted underachievers suffer more when they are not adequately challenged at school.
  3. Moreover, they are more likely to blame themselves for mistakes and failures, seeing themselves as responsible (“I am not good enough”, “I should have studied more”).
  4. However, they have few strategies for dealing with these emotions and tend to be overwhelmed by them.
  5. The consequence: a vicious circle that usually begins when a pupil is not sufficiently challenged and leads to lasting underachievement at school.



Project Management

Dr. phil.  Gyseler



Forschung und Entwicklung
Tel: +41 44 317 11 81

zfe[at] zfe