Underachievment -

The Unnecessary Disease

by Barbara Prashnig



Could Learning Styles be the cure?

One phenomenon, more than anything else, seems to puzzle teachers and parents alike: Why do some children begin to fail when they enter primary school; why do many survive into intermediate school but experience severely decreased learning motivation; and why are even more high school students frustrated, utterly bored, find it extremely difficult to achieve good marks in several subject areas and finally give up, convinced school and learning is not for them. Such inability to succeed in school is often accompanied by behavioural problems in class and at home, which in the worst leads to truancy, alcohol, drugs, criminal records, involvement with gangs or extremist groups, and antisocial behaviour towards others and themselves.


As this particular problem is growing worldwide, we have to examine why these young people become at-risk students, special education candidates or drop-outs, and what can be done to help them.

Preventing underachievement

Research in Learning Styles from around the world and case studies from Learning Style schools suggest that educators can alter and prevent this negative pattern of underachievement by understanding style differences and teaching with matched instructions. Parents can also contribute to a more positive development of their children, understanding their natural learning needs, supporting them accordingly and making sure that their teenagers don’t get in with the wrong crowd.

Analytic vs. Holistic Styles

Analytic students with a left-brain processing style learn very differently from the way students with a right-brain processing style tend to learn. Analytics learn sequentially, step-by-step, building details into the process and often prefer a quiet learning environment, bright light, formal seating arrangements and tend to continue their tasks until they have been completed. This makes them generally more successful in traditional school systems which are based on analytical, logical, academic teaching approaches, reinforced at home in similar ways.

Holistic students however, have a right-brain dominant, more feeling-based thinking style, learn holistically and compared to analytics often 'backwards'. They need the big picture, an overview first, without details, and once they understand the concept, then they are able to concentrate on details. They prefer learning with what most teachers and parents would describe as distractions: background music or noise, conversation, soft illumination, informal seating, snacks, social interaction and lots of body movements.

Scatterbrains and multi-taskers

In addition, holistic learners often are not persistent, it is not their way to focus on one thing until they reach understanding - they function much more like a 'scatterbrain'. Only if something makes sense to them, they can concentrate on details, they also get easily bored and need frequent breaks. Usually they return to their homework or assignment, work on it for a short period of time and then need another break. In addition, holistics don't like working on one thing at a time. Instead, they prefer to work on multiple tasks simultaneously and enjoy them most when permitted to choose their own sequence and the time frame.

Right-brain dominance

The younger children are, the more right-brain dominant they are. Therefore they need more holistic, right-brain teaching methods because their analytical brain-processing skills are not yet developed. Interestingly, in many adults (research estimates approximately two thirds of the Western population) holistic brain-processing remains the preferred thinking style throughout life. Most people have learned to analyse and can apply analytical thinking processes if they have to, but this makes learning harder and information intake much more difficult for them.

However, school systems, based on traditional, analytical teaching methods, force young people to do all their learning analytically because this is the preferred teaching style, especially in academic subjects in most of the high schools around the world. The result is that such systems set up students for failure - especially those whose information-processing style is strongly holistic, as seems to be the case with many teenage boys and native people in many countries.

Mismatch between teaching and learning styles

Another factor which contributes to the mismatch between teaching and learning styles is the well-researched fact that teachers are strongly analytical in their approaches, more so in high schools than in primary schools (and even more in tertiary education). They cannot imagine that their specific subject area could be studied and presented holistically, in a more right-brain way. It is just not in their thinking! Such teachers also seem to have great difficulties in accepting that there is more than one way to learn anything, because due to their own sequential left-brain thinking processes, analytics believe 'their' way is the best and the only one. 

And that false belief causes holistic students to fail, mainly in analytical subjects such as mathematics, science, economics, etc. which causes boredom and frustration, as well as having a negative effect on their overall performance. This seems to be the main reason for learning and behaviour problems, which then often leads to the above mentioned social problems among young adolescents.

Learning styles of underachievers and drop-outs

Apart from the basic differences between holistic and analytic learners, international research findings and studies in the United States have clearly shown that the learning styles of underachievers and drop-outs were significantly different from those students who remained in school. There are eight learning style elements which statistically differentiated these learners.

The eight strong needs in drop-out students are:

  1. Mobility at frequent intervals;
  2. A variety of instructional resources from which to learn matching students' low auditory and low visual modalities and their strong preferences for tactile/kinesthetic learning (hands-on activities) and their strong need for variety rather than routines and patterns;
  3. Preferring to learn difficult content at other times, not in early morning classes;
  4. Recognition of their high motivation despite their inability to learn through conventional methods, positive feedback instead of put-downs;
  5. Collegial rather than authoritarian teachers;
  6. Resources which introduce new and difficult information through multi-sensory methods (kinesthetic, tactile, visual, auditory) to make learning easier and more appealing;
  7. Informal seating arrangements in classrooms to respond to their inability to sit on plastic or wooden chairs for more than 10-12 minutes and their strong need for mobility;
  8. Soft illumination because fluorescent lights in classrooms make them agitated.

From our international work with Learning Styles we know that the same features apply to underachievers everywhere. They inevitably become at-risk students and drop-outs when their learning needs are not matched over longer periods of time. If schools had their students' learning styles assessed, trained their teachers to become more aware of diversity in the classroom and teach with matched instruction methods, as well as educate parents in their children's true learning needs, fewer students would experience frustration and the inability to succeed in academic classes. 

This could well be the cure for underachievement.

Readers who are interested in helping underachieving students learn more successfully academically will find a wealth of information combined with practical examples and case studies in Barbara Prashnig’s book “Learning Styles in Action”.

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About Barbara Prashnig

Professor Barbara Prashnig, a pioneer und visionary in the field of style diversity in leaning and working as well as professional development. Her passion is to help people in difficult situations succeeding through better self knowledge. She is the Founding Director and CEO of Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, New Zealand.