Learning needs of high-ability students

This page outlines the learning needs of high-ability students and provides guidance on how these needs can be met in the classroom.

The importance of meeting the needs of high-ability students

Teachers should understand the needs of their high-ability students. This will help them to support their academic growth. If the needs of high-ability students are not met, they can become disengaged. If the learning is too easy, high-ability students may not develop persistence, which is often referred to as 'grit' in psychology. They may also find it difficult to receive and act on feedback. This can contribute to issues such as unhealthy perfectionism.

What we know

Research indicates that high-ability students are growing academically at a slower rate than their peers (Shin et al., 2013; Xiang et al., 2011). At the classroom level, there are many possible reasons for this:

  • lower performing students may receive more attention from their teachers (Loveless, 2007)
  • teachers may think that high-ability students will improve on their own
  • teachers may think high-ability students will grow by helping lower performing students
  • teachers may not know exactly how to support the needs of high-ability students.

The needs of high-ability students should be taken into account when planning and differentiating activities. Teachers may assume that:

  • high-ability students understand everything they encounter in the classroom
  • high-ability students are proficient in all learning processes.

This is not always the case. A student who can answer a question correctly might not understand how they got to the answer. It is important to provide learning activities that are not only focused on final outcomes. They should also include attention to strategies and processes used to get to the outcome.

Cathcart (2005) provides a list of the needs of high-ability students:

  • Challenge: high-ability students need challenging tasks and resources at their point of need
  • Interaction: high-ability students need opportunities to interact with other high-ability students
  • Higher order thinking skills: high-ability students need opportunities to extend their:
    • thinking
    • problem solving
    • metacognitive skills.
  • Appropriate task goals: high-ability students need appropriate and realistic goals. Teachers should provide tasks that include explicit goals, and clear outcomes. They should also explain the teaching strategies and processes used.

From theory to practice


To add challenge, high-ability students should be offered tasks that:

  • include consideration of the reasons for the activity
  • contain various possible outcomes
  • allow for generalisability of the strategies and processes involved in the task
  • provide for deep and complex thinking
  • allow for deep examination of the topic.


High-ability students benefit from like-ability or above-ability interactions. These interactions can increase the challenge, effort, and satisfaction gained from engaging with tasks. If like-ability peer interactions are not possible, the teacher can create opportunities for interactions with suitable adults.

Appropriate task goals

High-ability students need to set realistic and appropriate goals. If they are not engaged with challenging learning goals, problems may arise. High-ability students may not develop the ability to work hard at a task that does not come easily. This may mean they don't develop 'grit'. High-ability students may also develop a tendency to avoid risk. Appropriate task goals should:

  • clearly stipulate purpose
  • articulate the learning outcome
  • explain the learning process
  • demand critical and higher order thinking.

Higher order thinking

Higher order thinking can be modelled and taught just like other academic skills. High-ability students can be placed along a progression in their ability to apply higher order thinking.

Students may show higher order thinking when they:

  • visualise a problem by diagramming it
  • separate relevant from irrelevant information in a word problem
  • seek reasons and causes for problems such as world issues
  • justify solutions when solving problems such as in open ended mathematics tasks
  • see more than one side of a problem
  • weigh sources of information based on their credibility
  • reveal assumptions in reasoning such as when investigating the link between political decisions and political ideology in a historical study
  • identify bias or logical inconsistencies.

Strategies and tools


There are many models that can help teachers add challenge to the learning. Anderson's and Krathwohl's (2001) revised Bloom's Taxonomy can be used to target the complexity of thinking skills. 

For high-ability students, teachers should focus on the top end of the revised Bloom's hierarchy.

Bloom's Taxonomy is structured like a triangle with six layers. Starting at the apex/top of the triangle, the levels are as follows:

  • Create: produce new or original work
  • Evaluate: justify a stand or decision
  • Analyze: draw connextions among ideas
  • Apply: use information in new situations
  • Understand: explain ideas or concepts
  • Remember: recall facts and basic concepts

Extending the success criteria can also support teachers. This process will add depth and complexity from the outset of a teaching sequence.

Image of Anderson's and Krathwohl's revised Bloom's Taxonomy


High-ability students can be supported to increase their engagement with peers through:

  • arranging interaction with other students of similar ability within the class or across classes or year levels in the school
  • arranging interaction with other high-ability students from other schools. This can be through informal interaction or formal activities, and can be achieved by:
    • arranging social interaction with other schools through common activities or excursions
    • arranging online interaction with high-ability students in other schools. This can occur at the local, national or global level.
  • the teacher and student selecting and working on problems together. The teacher can spend one on one time with the student, discussing the text or task or processes involved. This has the added advantage of building the teacher-student relationship. It also helps the teacher to gather informal assessment information about the student.

For more information on interactions, view the like-ability interactions page.

Appropriate task goals

Teachers should ensure students are working toward appropriate task goals. They can do this by requiring high-ability students to:

  • identify types of texts, resources and sources that could address a given problem
  • use the content of a text or resource to complete more complex activities or solve a set of more complex problems
  • change/synthesise the content of multiple texts or resources. These can be used to complete complex activities or solve complex problems
  • use texts or resources collaboratively. Students work in groups on a common task that requires each member's participation. This has the added advantage of developing social and interpersonal skills.

For further information on appropriate task goals, view the setting goals for learning page.

Higher order thinking

There are many frameworks and models to help teachers to target higher order thinking in high-ability students. Anderson and Krathwohl's (2001) revised Bloom's Taxonomy can help high-ability students develop their thinking skills. They will need to be supported to move to the higher levels of thinking earlier than their peers.

Problem based learning is an effective way of targeting higher order thinking skills. Maker and Pease (2018) propose the Real Engagement in Active Problem Solving model. It can activate and support thinking skills in high-ability students. 

This model uses problem based learning to target critical and higher order thinking skills. This can support high-ability students to develop the metacognitive skills to self-regulate their learning. For further information on higher order thinking and high ability, view the higher order thinking page.

Focus questions for professional learning

  • How do you currently provide a challenge for high-ability students? What could you do differently?
  • How do you foster like-ability interactions between high-ability students? What could you do differently?
  • What do you use to set appropriate goals for your high-ability students? What could you do differently?


Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon, MA (Pearson Education Group)

Cathcart, R. (2005). They’re not bringing my brain out - Understanding and working with gifted and talented learners. Hodder Education.

Chandra Handa, M. (2009). Learner-centred differentiation model: A new framework. Australasian Journal of Gifted Education, 18(2), 55–66.

Loveless, T. (2007). The Peculiar Politics of No Child Left Behind. In A. Gamoran (Ed.). Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap: Lessons for No Child Left Behind. The Brookings Institution, 253–85. Psychological Association.

Maker, C. J., & Pease, R. (2018). Real Engagement in Active Problem Solving: An International Collaboration. The SAGE Handbook of Gifted and Talented Education, 262.

MacLeod, B. (2005). Gifted and talented education: professional development package for teachers, Module 5. GERRIC, University of New South Wales.

Shin, T., Davison, M. L., Long, J. D., Chan, C.-K., & Heistad, D. (2013). Exploring gains in reading and mathematics achievement among regular and exceptional students using growth curve modeling. Learning and Individual Differences, 23, 92–100.

Xiang, Y., Dahlin, M., Cronin, J., Theaker, R., & Durant, S. (2011). Do high flyers maintain their altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students. Thomas B. Fordham Institute.