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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?

Take a look at the following list of characteristics of bright adults:

  • Independent thinker

  • Self-critical

  • Easily connects seemingly unrelated ideas

  • Thoroughly enjoys discussing ideas

  • Concerned about justice

  • Quirky sense of humor

  • Insightful

  • Keen observer

  • Very perceptive

  • Learns very quickly

  • Longs to find deeper meaning

Did any of the items on that list sound like any of your students? Do any of these characteristics sound like you? Are you similar to your gifted students? Can thinking about this help you identify your stealth gifted students? Of course, it’s entirely possible that they may hide their abilities so successfully that many of these traits may remain hidden from you. Many, if not most of the Invisible Ones are not easily identifiable as gifted.

Challenges Gifted Adults Face

I’ve recently published a book about gifted students (Fiedler, 2015), including looking at typical issues for gifted adults at all ages and stages of life—issues such as:

  • Finding acceptance in a world where they often feel different or alienated

  • Connecting with others who are like them enough to be kindred spirits

  • Developing strategies for living with their own intensity

  • Having opportunities for significant challenges that stimulate their thinking

  • Gaining adequate access to whatever resources they need

  • Seeking and finding meaning in life

Considering the lived experiences of bright adults can help us better understand ourselves and our gifted students, including the Invisible Ones—the stealth gifted.

Becoming invisible and joining the ranks of stealth gifted can fit into any age and stage of life. Even though I created a developmental model that covers six specific life stages for bright adults that covers the entire lifespan from age 18 to 80 and beyond, I created a separate category for the Invisible Ones—bright adults whose giftedness goes unseen. These gifted adults may do this deliberately or this may be learned behavior that has become automatic. Some of them are introverts, but not all of them since some conceal their true selves under masks of popularity, acting the class clown, or finding ways to be disruptive in your classroom, including debating you on every point you’re trying to make.

How Faculty can Unveil Hidden Gifts

We need to lure our stealth gifted students out of hiding so that their abilities can be nurtured in our classrooms. Even if you’ve already tried some of the strategies I’m going to mention here, you may not have thought about them in terms of bringing out your students’ hidden gifts and talents. So, here you go—my handy-dandy list of a few of the educational interventions that I’ve found especially useful for working with bright adults at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. These provide a good starting point, can be beneficial for all of your students, and can help you unveil the abilities of the Invisible Ones in your classes:

  • Differentiation in the classroom

    • Providing options based on students’ interests, readiness, learning profiles, (e.g.choices of assignments where they can select alternative approaches to    demonstrate what they know or can do)

    • Negotiated rubrics – (e.g., bargaining with you, proposing their own ideas about assessments that would still meet your criteria for mastery)

    • Grouping or pairing (e.g., grouping and regrouping students based on common instructional needs or for different purposes of any of your lessons)

    • Testing out (e.g., allowing any students in your class to show you that they already know various chunks of the course content so that they can pursue related learning while others are focusing on what you’d planned to teach).

  • Include them in your own research projects

    • Selecting a student (or two) to do meaningful work with you helps you both and may give you a chance to see abilities that otherwise stay out of sight.

    • Avoid giving only clerical-type work to them, and be sure to talk with them about your research and what intrigues you about it.

  • Mentoring

    • A way to create a close and meaningful connection with students whose abilities might otherwise be invisible, especially if you see the relationship as reciprocal.

    • As a mentor you can act as a kind of a tour guide—someone who has taken the journey before and can draw on prior knowledge and experience to point out sights and sounds and things to learn about along the way.

    • Just as any tour is influenced by the people who participate at any given time, interactions between the mentor and mentee affect the experience and are unique to the times that they share.

    • Where things may go wrong is when mentors decide that they know what’s best for their mentees and fail to acknowledge the capacity of their mentees to think for themselves.

Even though not all of what I’ve been talking about here will fit everyone who is a bright adult, it contains clues about how we might enhance our ability to find more of the gifted students in our classes, including our stealth gifted students, and increases our chances of better meeting their needs.


Columbus Group. (1991). Cited in Silverman, L. K. (1993). The gifted individual. In L. K. Silverman (Ed.), Counseling the gifted and talented, p. 3. Denver, CO: Love.

Fiedler, E. D. (2015). Bright adults: Uniqueness and Belonging Across the Lifespan. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Roeper, A. (1982). How the gifted cope with their emotions. Roeper Review, 5(2), 21-24.

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