Students with more advanced knowledge and skills than their peers may intellectually benefit if they are placed in more advanced classes or in more demanding and fast-paced education programs for their age. However, many teachers and educators consider this practice potentially harmful to the social and emotional development of students. A recent study indicates that there seems to be no reason for concern: students who received accelerated education do not report more socio-emotional problems or less psychological well-being throughout life than students who received regular education.
It is possible to accelerate the academic education of a student who demonstrates the necessary knowledge — that is, to enroll this student in a year of education more advanced than normal at their age and/or have the student attend more advanced and intensive classes than their peers. But is this a good practice? It seems so, according to a recent study by Brian Bernstein, David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt University. In this study, published in 2021, researchers followed students for 35 years and examined the long-term effects of accelerated education, namely on the psychological well-being of participants.
Although accelerated education is recommended by several experts and considered a best practice by the American National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008), some teachers and parents still worry about its potential negative effects. Researchers have shown it to be an effective alternative for students who learn complex and abstract materials faster than most of their peers. However, educators and guardians have expressed doubts about the consequences of accelerated education on the social and emotional development of students.
To systematically assess the long-term effects of academic acceleration, Brian O. Bernstein and colleagues conducted two studies. In the first study, they followed three groups of high-ability students for 35 years. These 1636 participants were part of the group of students with highest scores on standardized tests when they were about 13 years old (between 1972 and 1983). One group had students in the top 1% of all students, another, students in the top 0.5%, and a third group, students in the top 0.01%. All completed questionnaires at the time they were selected (at age 13), after secondary school (at age 18) and at age 50.
In all three groups, students who had their education accelerated showed no lower psychological well-being at age 50 than other students. Regardless of the abilities of these students and their socioeconomic status, as well as the degree of acceleration, accelerated education did not influence five indicators of psychological well-being 35 years later: positive affect, negative affect, satisfaction with life, self-evaluations of value and abilities, or psychological flourishing (perceptions of success in relationships, self-esteem, purpose, and optimism). These results indicate that particularly gifted adolescents seem to enjoy more intensive and demanding learning environments than they would have experienced if their education had not been accelerated.
These results were supported in a second study, which tested a group of 478 doctoral students in elite programs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In this study, participants were about 25 years old when they were first tested and were first-or second-year doctoral students. In the first questionnaire, participants responded retrospectively to questions about accelerated education opportunities they experienced before finishing secondary school, as well as about their parents' level of education and occupation. Tested 25 years later, participants who had had accelerated education opportunities and/or completed secondary education earlier revealed levels of psychological well-being (measured by the same indicators as in the first study) similar to those of participants who had not experienced accelerated education. Again, the socioeconomic status of students and parents did not influence the results. Thus, the results of the first study, observed with a sample of intellectually precocious students, were replicated in a sample of students in elite doctoral programs.
The results of these two studies point to the absence of negative effects of accelerated education on psychological well-being throughout life. In fact, previous studies had already indicated that speeding up students' education did not affect their well-being and social and emotional development in the short term. These data thus reinforce the idea that talented students with excellent performance do not seem to be harmed by a more accelerated and demanding education.
Given these findings, the concerns of some teachers and educators about possible delayed effects of academic acceleration on students' lives seem to be unfounded. Not accelerating a student's education and keeping them in classes that teach content they have already mastered might even have negative effects.
In sum, in addition to the intellectual benefits of including students who have the necessary skills and knowledge in more advanced classes, this research indicated that enrolling students in classes that match their level of knowledge and skills — instead of keeping them in classes with peers of the same age — has no negative effects on their future psychological well-being.
Bernstein, B. O., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2021). Academic acceleration in gifted youth and fruitless concerns regarding psychological well-being: A 35-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(4), 830-845.
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National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (2008). Foundations for success: The final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
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