Stealth Gifted? Bringing Out Hidden Abilities in Your College Classes

Ellen D. Fiedler, PhD

Some of the students in your college classrooms are obviously gifted. They stick out like the proverbial “sore thumb”— always ready, willing, and able to speak up in class and share relevant ideas to any discussion. They perform well on any of your assessments, and they make teaching a joy. Other students’ abilities are much less obvious. They seem to fade into the woodwork and hide from sight. You wonder about them and who they really are. Every now and then, you see flashes of insight and remarkable ideas, but then their true gifts and talents disappear from sight.

Disengaged or Stealth Gifted?

Under the umbrella of the word “stealth” is the concept of functioning in a secret or quiet way, including the idea of actions or movements that are cautious and surreptitious. Some very bright students do not perform well in your classes and may not speak out very often.  These “stealth gifted” students are reluctant to call attention to themselves. In writing about bright adults and their journey across the lifespan, I’ve included these stealth gifted students in a category I call the “Invisible Ones” (Fiedler, 2015)—bright adults whose giftedness typically remains unrecognized and who are often unrecognizable as anything more than average.

You may be wondering how these Invisible Ones can possibly be gifted, asking yourself if giftedness isn’t really defined by performance, including in your classes. However, another way to think about giftedness is to focus more on who the person is rather than on what they do. For instance the eminent educator Annemarie Roeper, who co-founded one of the first schools for gifted children and established the journal Roeper Review, described giftedness as “a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences” (Roeper, 1982, p. 21). In 1991 the Columbus Group talked about giftedness in terms of asynchronous development and about how advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create qualitatively different inner experiences and awareness. These definitions can definitely include students who might be thought of as “stealth gifted.”

Consider the Individuality of the Student

Think about your own students. Have you ever had students in your classes whose grades on written assignments were mediocre but who seemed to be brighter than most, whether their coursework revealed that or not? Were some of them students whose eyes lit up when you covered any of the more sophisticated or complex concepts in your courses but showed obvious signs of boredom when the more basic topics were covered?