Teaching the Gifted Student

Teaching the Gifted Student (PILOT Reflections)

I was a little surprised to find “gifted students” on the list of subjects to discuss in an accessibility and inclusion workshop.

On the one hand, gifted students are a joy. They do the readings. They participate in class. They ask thoughtful questions.

On the other hand, gifted students can be a burden. They can monopolize class discussions. They might expect that simply being bright ought to be enough to earn them an A. They might send you multiple e-mails arguing over the half point they missed on a quiz. They demand that you justify the A- they got on a reflection paper, and insist that you list all the things they did “wrong”. They never had to work this hard in high school, so you’re obviously out to get them. Heaven help you if you should have to give them a B!

Gifted students aren’t necessarily more mature than their peers. Sometimes high-achieving students hold scholarships that require them to keep extremely high GPAs, so it’s not fair to dismiss hyper-awareness of grades as if it were motivated by pride and pettiness. It’s very likely that they really do have a lot of additional pressure, beyond a desire for perfectionism or a competitive streak, to maintain the high grades they see as a sign of success.

One of the first classes I took in my Ph.D program was on the history of the English language. I knew I was learning a lot, so I was shocked when I found myself getting grades like 83 and 85. I made an appointment with the professor, and while I hope I didn’t come off as belligerent or rude, I was eager to know what I was doing wrong. Little did I know that in the marking scheme at the University of Toronto, a grade from 80-89 is considered an “A”, and 90-100 is an A+.

I sure felt like a grade-grubbing dweeb.

In school, I know I hated being put into groups with deadbeats who didn’t carry their weight. Gifted students need additional challenges, but I think they rightly object to doing additional work simply because they are gifted. In a composition or literature class, I don’t think I need to provide extra assignments to challenge gifted students. Writing is never finished the way a mathematical equation is solved or a list of anatomical terms is memorized.

While grade compression has diluted the meaning of an “A” from “top-notch, outstanding work” to “You didn’t make any significant mistakes”, for short assignments and exercise, I will single out the exceptional work of gifted students, to let them know I am paying attention. I grade most exercises on a four-point scale, and tell students that a 4 counts as an A, but I return their grades on slips of paper that include numbers from zero to five. It is possible to get a grade higher than a 4, but I give out 4.5s and 4s only very rarely. A few students will end up with quiz averages higher than a 4.0, but if they do, they’ve worked for it, and their other work is probably top-notch, too.

In the spring semester I changed the way I enforced late penalties for papers. If a student hands me a completed, properly-formatted and stapled paper at the beginning of the class period, I add a “decorum bonus” of 1/3 of a letter grade. If the paper is crumpled, unstapled, or unpaginated; if the student bursts into class 10 minutes late, with the pages still warm from the printer; if I find the paper slipped under my door a few hours after class, then the student loses the 1/3 decorum bonus.

It’s kind of like doubling the price of your wall-to-wall carpet one week so that you can advertise a 50% price cut the next week, but this method permits me to grade a little more realistically. A student who is used to a 4.0 average might make some mistakes in an otherwise good paper. I can give it an A-, knowing that the true perfectionist will have turned it on time and in the proper format, and thus the grade will be bumped to an A. I don’t appear to be an overly harsh grader, and the student who feels the world owes him or her a 4.0 doesn’t burst into tears, yet the A- reinforces the message that the student could be doing better work.

After I’ve marked the first few freshman composition papers, it’s usually pretty clear who the gifted writers are. Last year, when my Seminar in Thinking and Writing class had settled into a pattern that involved the five or six most active students doing all the talking while the rest listened, I told the core group of active participants that they had already distinguished themselves as active students who would probably get great class participation grades, and pointed out that if they keep raising their hands or talking among themselves, the whole class will stagnate.

I tell students who have already distinguished themselves as active participants that I will henceforth evaluate them on their ability to get the other students in the class to participate. That strategy has worked to a point, but whenever the gifted student gets excited about something, the old pattern returns. When my dean visited my classroom last term, she approvingly noted the teacher-student dynamic, but indicated that she would like to see more peer-to-peer interaction. My colleague Terry Brino-Dean asks students to fill out a self-assessment form every few weeks, which gets the students to focus on their efforts to foster classroom discussion.

My “Writing for the Internet” course has to accommodate students who are experienced bloggers and HTML authors, as well as students who can barely e-mail. While a student who is experienced with HTML is not necessarily gifted, and while a student who is not comfortable with technology may still be gifted, the diversity of opinion makes me realize I’ll have to add more self-paced modules.

My last batch of student evaluations included complaints from students who thought the course moved too fast, as well as students who thought the course moved too slowly. I’ve asked a student who has already taken the course to serve as a mentor, which should help me give more specialized attention during labs.

In addition, I can ask the students who already know the material to help me teach it to those who don’t. They’ll have to cultivate a significant sense of ownership over the material if they are responsible for their peers’s learning. (Of course, I’ll help the student prepare, and I’ll be ready to step in if the student stumbles.)