Identifying high-ability students

​Supporting high-ability students requires identification through analysis of student data. High-ability students learn at faster rates. They find, solve and act on problems; manipulating abstract ideas, making connections to an advanced degree.

High-ability students talk about their learning - video

High-ability students talk about their love of learning, how teachers can support this learning and some of the challenges of being ahead of their peers.

Download video transcript

Defining high-ability students 

High-ability students come from a variety of backgrounds.  These students may have been identified as high-ability by a psychologist, have a tutor or be coached, or have a learning difficulty or disability. 

The high-ability term includes: 

  • accelerated learners  
  • twice exceptional  
  • gifted and talented (not limited to)

Common traits of high-ability

Primary students:

  • ability to understand and use abstract symbol systems at a much younger age than usual
  • ability to ask reflective and probing questions
  • a rich vocabulary
  • can become absorbed in work that they find interesting
  • unusually fast rate of learning
  • dislike slow-paced work
  • well-developed memory
  • reason at a level usually found in students some years older
  • preference for independent work.

Secondary students:

  • ability to ask reflective, probing and sometimes provocative questions
  • capacity to see and create patterns and relationships in their field of special ability
  • can become deeply absorbed
  • unusually fast rate of learning
  • reasons at a level usually found in students some years older
  • extremely well-developed memory
  • dislike slow-paced work
  • many high-ability students prefer independent work.

Social-emotional characteristics

High-ability students may show the following characteristics:

  • the need to develop their learning and feel pride in academic achievements may be at variance with the need to be accepted by classmates
  • emotional intensity
  • an unusual ability to empathise with the feelings of other students or adults
  • an unusually well-developed sense of justice and fairness
  • an unusually mature sense of humour
  • often prefer the companionship of older students
  • may develop a strong attachment to one or two close friends
  • may have difficulty deciding on a career choice
  • can exhibit perfectionist tendencies

High-ability students may need targeted assistance with:

  • peer relationships
  • perfectionism
  • asynchronous development
  • situational stressors
  • post-secondary planning

Underachieving high-ability students

Possible characteristics of underachieving high-ability students:

  • lack of motivation to apply themselves in school
  • low self-esteem
  • consistently negative attitude toward school and learning
  • reluctance to take risks or apply one’s self
  • discomfort with competition
  • lack of perseverance
  • lack of goal-directed behaviour
  • social isolation
  • weaknesses in skill areas and organisation
  • disruptiveness in class and resistance to class activity

Students at higher risk of non-identification:

  • learning or physical disability
  • economically disadvantaged backgrounds
  • culturally diverse students with English as an Additional Language
  • geographically isolated areas
  • love of learning has been dimmed by years of repetitive and unchallenging curriculum
  • students who deliberately camouflage their abilities for peer acceptance

Profiles of high-ability students

According to Betts and Niehart (2010) there are six profiles of high-ability learners. These profiles can help you to identify high-ability students in your classrooms.

Using data to identify students

Analysis of assessment data provides the evidence you need to improve teaching and learning for the group and individuals within it. Accurate interpretation of data enables the you to:

  • identify student readiness
  • make interventions
  • set goals and learning intentions
  • provide feedback

Considerations for using data with high-ability students

Multiple forms of data should be analysed to accurately determine student ability and learner readiness.

Other considerations:

  • use evidence-based criteria for selection to specific programs provided in your school
  • avoid ‘over-testing’ by checking with all learning areas the different abilities that students have already demonstrated
  • include learners in the analysis of their assessment results to encourage ownership of their learning.

For further information on differentiation

Further information on differentiation can be found at High impact teaching strategies in action.

​​​​Analysing assessment data

Multiple assessments should be used to determine the achievement level of a learner to provide an on-balance judgement. It is also important to consider the signs and characteristics of an underachieving high-ability student. 

Sources of data to identify high-ability students:

  • NAPLAN results (Years 3,5,7,9)
  • anecdotal report from parent/teacher interview
  • PAT literacy, maths, abstract reasoning
  • Early Years interviews
  • On-Demand testing
  • ACER higher ability selection tests
  • on-going formative assessments facilitated by teachers
  • previous teacher reports
  • specialist reports i.e. psychologist, speech therapist
  • behavioural and observation checklists
  • student portfolios
  • external competition results

Visit our Student Excellence Program for more information about the initiatives that support government primary and secondary schools.


Betts, G. T., & Neihart, M. (1988). Profiles of the Gifted and Talented. Gifted Child Quarterly, 32(2), 248-253. doi:10.1177/001698628803200202

GERRIC 2005, Gifted and Talented Education Professional Package for Teachers Module One – Understanding Giftedness 2020. Meeting The Needs Of Gifted Underachievers – Individually!. Available at: