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Highly intelligent in college: “The level is too low for me”

Thirza Lont,
8 maart 2023 - 12:15

It’s Gifted Awareness Week. Folia spoke with student Kevin Santifort (22), who was bored at school and was also looking for more of a challenge at university. What does it mean to be gifted, and what can the university do in this regard?

“I’m at least as smart as she is”, thought Kevin Santifort (22), a social geography and planning student, when his sister was deemed to be gifted. As a sixth grader, he decided that’s why he wanted to be tested, too. He was right. That’s why he went to a different elementary school with the appropriate education. He says he found that ‘very nice’. Because regular elementary school was terribly boring. “I finished the assignments too quickly, so I was bored to death.”

I barely study - and pass most subjects with good grades by just going to the lectures

That boredom returned when Santifort entered middle school. In his second year, things went wrong. He got six failing grades. “I really should have gone straight to high school, but I had a deal with my school because they realized I was underperforming. I stayed on and after six months I was not allowed to fail any more courses. That worked. But it suddenly became pretty easy for me, so I never learned to learn, to really do my best.”
And then college came along. “Teachers in high school always said that college was harder than high school. The opposite was true. For me, the level of my studies is too low. I barely study - and pass most subjects with good grades by just going to the lectures.”

Foto: Pleun van Vliet

Lazy and unmotivated
Gifted students sometimes think they are ‘lazy’, ‘can’t plan’ or ‘have no motivation’, according to Pleun van Vliet, former UvA lecturer and gz psychologist . Van Vliet has a diagnostic practice for gifted adults. “Gifted people are usually not lazy; on the contrary, they are very driven. But because of their high intelligence, they are often insufficiently challenged. Then they lose their motivation. Or they start studying for a test extra late on purpose so they simply don’t have time to get bored anymore because they have to learn everything at the last minute. In the case of giftedness, that can be a form of healthy coping. But if you hear often enough that you’re lazy, you start to believe it.”
There is no single definition of giftedness, Van Vliet says. Until the 1950s-1970s, it was mainly defined as an excellent ability to think abstractly, logically, and academically. As more research was done on gifted people, those who fall within or above the 98th percentile on IQ tests, models also emerged describing character traits commonly observed in the gifted such as drive, intrinsic motivation, and creativity. Van Vliet says: "Most gifted people think like a Ferrari. They are fast and have creative urges: they want to make things and be creative. They tend to be intense people, also emotionally, who think and feel in a complex way.”


Van Vliet also sees gifted students in her practice. “The average IQ of a psychology student is probably about 120, and the pace of the curriculum is set accordingly. Someone who is gifted is at least 130. Such a student has figured out the subject within two weeks, so to speak, and then gets bored. The student must then slow down and quit. Such a student is often thought to be unable to plan, whereas most gifted students can do just fine if they have enough to do. Sometimes that’s twice as much in half the time as the average student.”

Foto: Jessica Schaaf

The fact that Santifort dropped a class is something Van Vliet recognizes. “It is a misconception that the gifted always perform well. First, they often need to be challenged above average to really apply themselves to something, and that doesn’t happen everywhere. Second, some children miss out on schooling for reasons unrelated to their abilities. Third, not all gifted people are also academically interested; I see plenty who prefer to indulge their giftedness in ‘doing’ rather than in ‘thinking’, for example by arranging super-complex logistics at the Ziggo Dome, or on the international market.”
One such ‘Ferrari’ is UvA doctoral student Jessica Schaaf. She specializes in the cognitive development of children as they mature into adults and is an expert on learning strategies. “I identify with what Van Vliet says, that the curriculum is designed to match the intelligence of most students. For some students, including myself, ‘it’, or the challenge, just didn’t come. I ended up doing the research master’s and progressed into a PhD track from there, where I found my niche. Supervisors normally don’t give candidates too many tasks at once, but my supervisor actually let me do a lot to keep me busy. Teachers and supervisors need a lot of adaptability to provide challenges to students who want more. I was lucky with that.”
“That Schaaf was disillusioned by the level at university, I also recognized in some students when I was still teaching at the UvA”, says Van Vliet. That’s why at the time she put together ‘The Ideal Course’ together with remarkably promising students. This course was taught every year for five years starting in 2003 when it received a teaching award. “As a teacher, I had to adjust the material each time because I always got feedback ‘that it could all be much better’. But I loved seeing that students who weren’t being challenged by the normal curriculum found challenges in my course. It was wonderful to see them blossom by challenging each other more, when otherwise they might have remained disappointed or under the radar. By the way, they did that blossoming all by themselves; you just had to give them the opportunity.”

I loved seeing that students who weren’t being challenged found challenges in my course

Student Santifort, too, has since found more of a challenge, somewhat like the students of ‘The Ideal Course’ in 2003. He is now doing the UvA honors program. Although he has only taken one course, he already finds it a fun challenge. He gets to choose the courses that interest him. “And I now also sit with students who, for example, come from the study of medicine. As a Ruth Island campus student, I would normally have no contact with them. In addition, I already notice that the level of people in the study group is higher, which makes the discussions interesting.”
Santifort also understands that the level of normal education is as it is, the level that Van Vliet and Schaaf also saw. “I don’t know if the university can offer more customized education for students who need more challenge apart from the honors program. Because, of course, teachers also have to take into account the bulk of students who take longer than I do to master the material.” Santifort doesn’t know if he wants to go further into academia, like PhD student Schaaf. “I am thinking about it, and probably will do a research master’s because I like research. But in these times of neoliberalism, PhD students are exploited, especially in social sciences. They often have to arrange their own grants. That’s why I hesitate.”

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