High-achieving year 6 students have identified their relationships with teachers and peers and participation in extra-curricular activities as three of the most important factors in their schooling.
A new study on working above standard identified students at a rural Victorian school who were achieving at least one year above what was expected for their year in numeracy and literacy standardised tests, including NAPLAN.
The study tracked their results throughout primary school to identify which students consistently achieved above standard, which students fluctuated and those who achieved above standard once.
"Sometimes it's easy to just let [high-achieving] children continue on their own because they can be quite easy, they just get on with the job ... but we need to keep focused on them, the data we have shows that if we take our eye off the ball, they can fluctuate quite a lot," said Noella Mackenzie, the lead author and associate professor in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University.
The paper, published in the latest edition of Issues in Educational Research, is one of the few of its kind to identify the factors that influence high-achievement by asking students to discuss their own schooling experiences.
It found that social factors such as friendships and sense of belonging at school through participation in non-academic programs, as well as the role of teachers, were recurring themes for students who were achieving above standard consistently as well as those whose results fluctuated.
"It's really hard to tell [what makes a difference for consistent high-achievers] because they didn't tell different stories [to students with fluctuating results]," Dr Mackenzie said.
"Reading between the lines, the children who are consistently able to maintain a high standard, perhaps what they're telling us is that they are able to adapt to different teachers more easily than other children."
While teachers' skills were important, the responses indicated that "the way the student perceives their relationship with the teacher" may also have an impact on achievement.
"The highly-skilled teacher comes out in our study as knowing how to adapt and adjust their teaching, it's clear that it's how they teach rather than what they teach that makes a difference," Dr Mackenzie said.
Jae Jung, a leading researcher in gifted education and a senior lecturer at UNSW, said the factors identified as important by the students align with the research on supporting gifted students.
Professor Jung said other factors that are important in educating high-achievers include the "extent to which teachers and the school cater to supporting the needs of these students so they are able to achieve to their full potential".
The study indicated the three factors identified by students may have a more direct impact on high achievement than family socioeconomic status, which it found often has an indirect influence by shaping opportunities to participate in non-academic activities, which affects school performance.
"Perhaps we've become too focused on test scores and these children have pulled us back and said 'we need to do these other things'," Dr Mackenzie said.
"It gives them that sense of belonging, that sense of I'm not just here for the academic learning, I'm part of teams, groups, music and art experiences ... we know creative processes get the brain working in ways that support academic learning and support social development, it's about being a well-rounded human being."
The paper also looks at a previous NSW study of two gifted students' performances in a creative writing program and identified a number of teacher-led methods to address under-achievement among this group.
These included a greater focus on one-on-one teaching opportunities, promoting positive teacher-student relationships and differentiating the learning needs of individual gifted students.