Learner-centered education has been the paradigm chosen decades ago in the USA and many other countries. This approach has proved to be effective as educators facilitate students’ learning by building on their strengths. This framework has led to the acknowledgment of the necessity to develop specific programs for diverse groups of learners, including disabled and exceptional students (Baum et al., 2021). The twice-exceptional students are quite a specific population that requires substantial attention as these students display outstanding academic results that can become the basis for their further exceptional contribution to the growth of the nation.
The programs for such students, as well as other populations, have not come in place at once but have become a product of an ongoing struggle of educators, researchers, students, parents, and officials. The twice-exceptional students (also referred to as 2e students) are learners who are gifted and have some form of disability (Cain et al., 2019). At this point, it is necessary to note that there is no exact definition of giftedness that would be accepted across the country. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, came up with a general description of this population in 1993 (Cain et al., 2019, p. 1663). Gifted students are defined as “children and youth with outstanding talent [who] perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment” (Cain et al., 2019, p. 1663). However, school districts operationalize giftedness based on their categories and approaches. For instance, in many states, giftedness is assessed based on IQ tests or achievement tests, while in some states, achievements in art or leadership skills are included in this assessment.
The very first steps in the acknowledgment and research into exceptionality within the boundaries of the American educational system were made in the 1920s (Kaufman, 2018, p. 3). Leta Hollingworth was one of the pioneers in this field as she found that the students, who were at those times referred to as defective, had lower IQ tests mainly due to the lack of social skills. The pioneering educator and researcher argued that such children were to be provided with a more favorable classroom environment to facilitate their learning (Kaufman, 2018). Moreover, Hollingworth and other researchers identified that many of such students had exceptional abilities in some disciplines.
More research into the matter led to further discoveries in this area. In the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of twice-exceptionality was further operationalized and became a topic of detailed inquiry (Kaufman, 2018). The academic achievement of students with autism was an area of specific interest of educators. At that, the focus was still on weaknesses rather than strengths of these youth, which made the development of special interventions still seemingly unnecessary. The primary shift towards the creation of sound interventions for 2e students took place in the 1970s. One of the milestones in this process was the enactment of the Gifted and Talented Children Educational Assistance Act of 1969 that paved the way to diverse educational programs for twice-exceptional students (Lee & Ritchotte, 2018, p. 69). It was not until 1988 when the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act was enacted (Lee & Ritchotte, 2018, p. 69). This federal program involves funding research and programs for gifted students, including 2e youth, was introduced. This federal legislation is still the only basis catering to the needs of students who excel academically.
As mentioned above, gifted students with any form of disability are regarded as twice-exceptional. 2e learners with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) constitute quite a large population, and these people need specific attention to ensure that they will reach their full potential. Some of the common characteristics of gifted students with ASD are outstanding achievements in some disciplines and average results in others, low social skills, and routine-associated rigidness (Conejeros-Solar et al., 2021). These students have considerable difficulties with forming proper social ties and relationships with peers and educators, which has adverse effects on their academic performance. Although certain research into the features of 2e students with ASD and their needs has been implemented, the focus is often descriptions rather than analysis. More data regarding particular interventions that could be applied in large populations is still needed. In addition, researchers tend to concentrate on the K-12 environment while the needs of twice-exceptional learners in the higher education setting are under-researched.
This proposal includes a brief description of the proposed study on the factors that influence the retention and graduation rates of 2e students with ASD in higher education. In the following sections of this proposal, the major details regarding the research on the matter are outlined. This paper includes such sections as problem statement, research questions, literature review, and methodology (with described research design, sample, conceptual framework, as well as ethical aspects).
Although the problem has been acknowledged and some steps have been undertaken to address the issue for decades, a disproportionate number of twice-exceptional students have access to programs facilitating their academic success. Numerous obstacles to the effective functioning of these interventions and complete inclusion of the target population can be identified. One of the challenges is associated with defining giftedness and exceptionality, as well as assessing students and locating them as people eligible to participate.
Due to the differences in definitions and difficulties in identifying giftedness, the actual number of 2e students can hardly be adequately estimated. Ottone-Cross et al. (2018) state that the existing legislative basis for the development of the programs for the target population is associated with critical gaps leading to more questions than answers. For instance, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, a learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. (as cited in Ottone-Cross et al., 2018, p. 173)
However, the definition of “imperfect ability” remains rather obscure, which makes it difficult to assess the achievement and particular needs of many students, especially when it comes to ASD with symptoms of different severity. The lack of a clear understanding of the peculiarities of students’ conditions, their needs, their strengths, and interests is also a severe challenge yet to be addressed.
First, it is difficult to evaluate the severity of the issue and the exact number of affected people. In the early 2010s, it was assessed that three million of students with some form of disability were also gifted (Lee & Ritchotte, 2018, p.69). Researchers’ estimates as to the rate of such students among the general population are quite alarming (approximately 5-6%) (Lee & Ritchotte, 2018, p. 69). It has also been calculated that almost 30% of college students with a disability earn a degree, while the graduation rate in the general population is approximately 60% (Snyder et al., 2020, p. 3). Clearly, this pool is worth attention, let alone that each person’s potential is priceless.
At the same time, the needs of these people are not fully met irrespective of the availability of numerous projects and interventions for 2e students. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection of 2011–2012, seven percent of general population students took part in programs for gifted learners, while only 1% of students with disabilities were enrolled in such projects (Lee & Ritchotte, 2018, p. 68). This disproportionate enrollment can have negative effects on the academic engagement and achievement of these students, as these learners are often characterized by low self-esteem and motivation (Conejeros-Solar et al., 2021). 2e students often have to address social issues that prevent them from fully participating in academic life and realizing their full potential. Hence, it is critical to understand the needs of this population, as well as the factors affecting their academic achievement, retention, and graduation.
As mentioned above, researchers have explored some aspects of the problem with the focus on the description of physical conditions and academic achievement. Much less attention has been invested into other factors that have an impact on 2e students’ retention, academic achievement, and graduation (Gelbar et al., 2021). In addition to physical conditions (cognitive peculiarities, type of disability, as well as comorbidity) and academic performance, other factors need to be examined. This information is pivotal for the creation of effective programs aimed at facilitating these learners’ academic growth. It is also pivotal to emphasize that the focus of researchers remains on the K-12 educational setting while the experiences of students of higher education establishments and their needs are less explored. This gap should be addressed as 2e students enrolled in higher education facilities are often unable to access the necessary service that could help them manage their difficulties and reach their fullest potential.
One of the factors affecting the academic outcomes of the group in question is 2e students’ participation in various programs and their access to diverse educational services (Cain et al., 2019; Snyder et al., 2020). The effectiveness of the programs receives insufficient attention in academia, while it is may potentially shape the way twice-exceptional students progress academically. The relationships with peers, as well as the attitudes of 2e students’ friends, are also influential factors affecting the target group’s graduation and retention rates, as well as their academic performance (Conejeros-Solar et al., 2021). The issues related to the correct identification of the peculiarities, weaknesses, strengths, and needs of 2e students are the factors that have a significant influence on these learners’ academic outcomes (Villanueva & Huber, 2019). These major areas will become the core of the present study aimed at exploring the factors that have an effect on 2e students’ retention and graduation rates, as well as their academic achievement.
The purpose of this study is to explore the factors that have an influence on the retention and graduation rates, as well as the academic achievement, of twice-exceptional students with an autism spectrum disorder. Both qualitative and quantitative research designs have been utilized to examine the needs and peculiarities of 2e students (Gelbar et al., 2021). At that, qualitative research questions would be the most appropriate to meet the goal of this study. This study is aimed at analyzing the circumstances that influence people’s behaviors. Hence, people’s views on the matter should be central to the research. In simple terms, the characteristics as seen by the target group should be explored in detail, as these challenges are perceived as the most difficult to overcome. In order to address the aim of this study, it is necessary to pose open-ended questions that enable researchers to analyze large scopes of aspects of the problem and have deep insights into the problem (Cohen et al., 2017). The major focus has been on the experiences of learners, which is but logical.
However, other stakeholders’ perspectives can add more insights into the problem. In addition to the views of 2e students, it can be important to examine the opinions of educators who contribute to these learners’ academic success. Educators are in close contact with twice-exceptional students and follow their academic progress, providing educational services, supporting and encouraging these students. Teachers are also the ones to assess the needs of the target population and develop or advise on the program to be used by each student based on their peculiarities. Teachers may also notice some factors that affect 2e students’ choices but remain unacknowledged by the latter. Administrative and legislative aspects are more apparent to the faculty as students see the results of diverse laws and acts, as well as policies and standards. Teachers may provide their evaluations regarding the effectiveness of these standards and legislation. Therefore, the attitudes and assessments of educators can shed light on important areas that can be instrumental in the development of effective programs for 2e students.
Based on the abovementioned aspects, it is possible to formulate the research questions that will guide the proposed study in the following way:
- What are the most influential factors affecting graduation and retention rate, as well as the academic achievement, of 2e students with ASD in the higher education setting as seen by students themselves?
- What factors affect the retention and graduation rate, as well as the academic achievement, of twice-exceptional students with ASD in the higher education environment as seen by educators?
Defining and Identifying
The giftedness of learners and its effects on their academic performance have been studied for many decades. Some areas of the issue have received the most attention among researchers, while numerous gaps still persist. The focus of this study is on twice-exceptional students, so the scope of this literature review is confined to this population. The problem of the definition of giftedness and even particular types of disability have been a common topic for past decades. Cain et al. (2019) trace the development of some definitions used in the U.S. legislative field and claim that the existing definition is rather vague.
The identification of giftedness and sometimes the disability is linked to certain difficulties as well. For instance, Cain et al. (2019) add that educators in different states use quite different methods to assess giftedness, which increases the apparent confusion. It is still unclear whether purely academic outcomes, such as IQ tests or particular skills tests, can be effective or whether such aspects as leadership skills or creativity can be a part of this assessment. Ottone-Cross et al. (2018) shed light on another challenge to be addressed. The researchers state that 2e students often utilize compensatory strategies that make their disability less evident. This phenomenon is referred to as “masking” and prevents many twice-exceptional students from accessing the necessary services (Ottone-Cross et al., 2018, p. 173). As a result, such students do not realize their full potential and have to address their issues on their own.
The identification of the disability and its severity and potential impact has been a matter of research with no particular paradigm that could be utilized across the nation. Snyder et al. (2020) state that several approaches to identifying disability are utilized currently. However, these frameworks are imperfect, which is specifically apparent in their ability to detect the specific needs of 2e students. In addition to the masking effect, other obstacles to accessing services, as well as investing the necessary effort into the study of the phenomenon, exist. Nolte (2018) claims that masking is a considerable challenge yet to be addressed, but the comparatively low incidence of giftedness and disability leads to quite a common interest in the matter among researchers and practitioners. At the same time, Nolte (2018) mentions that in one of her studies, the prevalence of 2e students in mathematics classes was as high as 15% (p. 199). Therefore, the need for further investigation of diverse aspects of 2e students’ academic outcomes has been acknowledged.
Some Trends in Research
Although the attention paid to the problem is still insufficient, which is stressed by researchers and practitioners, the interest in this area is increasing. Gelbar et al. (2021), in their systematic review, analyze articles published between 1996 and 2019 and claim that the number of studies on the matter has been gradually growing. At that, approximately 63% of the reviewed articles were empirical, while almost 38% were conceptual or reviews (Gelbar et al., 2021, p. 1). Gelbar et al. (2021) note that the vast majority of the studies implemented on the subject were descriptive in nature, while some were correlational and some were cases studies.
The primary focus of the reviewed articles was on the characteristics of twice-exceptional students and utilized identification approaches. Researchers mainly describe the attributes of 2e students with an emphasis on their giftedness. Gelbar et al. (2021) add that in many cases, these studies devoted to academic programs for students with special needs, as well as these educational services, are aimed at disabled students. This population’s giftedness is often left out, and researchers, as well as practitioners or students themselves, have quite a one-sided perspective paying little attention to their potential giftedness. As mentioned above, masking plays a vital role in this process, making the stakeholders concentrate on a limited scope of student needs. It is stressed that more attention should be paid to the assessment of the existing programs and interventions, which can help in the introduction of effective incentives that will facilitate the learning of the target population.
Factors Affecting 2E Students’ Academic Outcomes
The cognitive and demographic peculiarities of 2e students are some of the most influential factors affecting these learners’ academic outcomes and graduation rates. It is acknowledged that twice-exceptional students’ psychosocial peculiarities have a considerable impact on their performance and academic achievement (Ottone-Cross et al., 2018). Importantly, such students often excel in some disciplines while having average or even mediocre achievement in other areas. Ottone-Cross et al. (2018) add that these difficulties tend to have a negative effect on students’ motivation and their overall performance at school.
Cain et al. (2019) state that demographic peculiarities, giftedness, as well as available educational services for such populations are the predictors of 2e learners’ academic success. It is noteworthy that the researchers concentrate on 2e students with ASD exclusively. According to Cain et al. (2019), the twice-exceptional students with ASD who find themselves in a favorable environment (with available service, family support, socioeconomic opportunities) tend to display higher results compared to the general population. These students also perform better compared to 2e learners with other disabilities. The study by Cain et al. (2019) provides valuable insights into the matter as the researchers trace the academic performance of 2e learners with ASD across several years (during primary and middle school). Nevertheless, although the sample was comparatively large (19,000 people), more research is needed to explore the factors affecting the academic performance and retention rate of 2e students. Moreover, the focus was on pre-school and middle-school students, while college students were not included, and their academic performance was not traced.
Snyder et al. (2020) claim that academic skills and goals, as well as academic efficacy, serve as predictors of college 2e student retention. At the same time, low academic motivation has a negative impact on these learners’ overall academic performance and retention rates (Snyder et al., 2020). The researchers compare the academic achievement and retention rate of twice-exceptional students excelling in mathematics and those advanced in reading. It is found that the former group is characterized by a higher retention rate, which is also associated with these learners’ motivation. Choosing a major is one of the factors that have an influence on the academic achievement, as well as graduation and retention rates, of twice-exceptional students (Snyder et al., 2020). Hence, the discipline and 2e students’ academic interest can be seen as influential factors that have an impact on their academic achievement and retention / graduation rates.
Social aspects have also received considerable attention in academia, and the role of families, educators, peers has been explored. Armstrong (2018) states that 2e students’ resilience and uniqueness play an important part in their academic journey. At that, family support and the involvement of educators, friends, and other stakeholders (for example, counselors) has a substantial influence on 2e learners’ academic achievement and retention rates. Although the study by Armstrong (2018) is characterized by quite a small sample, as only the experiences of four college students are analyzed, it contributes substantially to the current knowledge base on the matter. The researcher detects the most recurrent topics discussed by 2e college students, which is invaluable data.
The study by Conejeros-Solar et al. (2021) is remarkable due to its focus on 2estudents’ peers rather than students themselves or their teachers and parents. The researchers emphasize that twice-exceptional students’ closest friends contribute to their academic success as they provide psychological and emotional support to the vulnerable population. The relationships with peers have been acknowledged as influential factors affecting the academic success of 2e students. At that, more research in this area is critical as the study by Conejeros-Solar et al. (2021) involved only 17 people, and those were all students of the middle school.
The implemented review shows that quite increasing attention to 2e students’ academic achievement and retention has translated into the discovery of important aspects of the problem. However, multiple gaps are still apparent and need to be addressed in order to develop practical solutions to the issues and facilitate this populations’ academic success. First, it is important to establish a sound methodology for the early detection of giftedness and disability. It is critical to make sure that the introduced methods are rigid and can be applied in various settings, such as K-12 or higher education environment.
In addition, more attention should be paid to the experiences and outcomes of students enrolled in higher education facilities. At present, the major focus is on K-12 students as well as those transitioning to college. However, a growing number of twice-exceptional students in higher education and their comparatively low retention rate suggest that effective educational programs aimed at boosting these learners’ academic success are needed (Gelbar et al., 2021). Moreover, it is also apparent that the programs available at colleges mainly aim at disabled students who are not gifted. 2e learners have limited access to programs helping them cope with their needs, especially when it comes to the acquisition of social skills (Gelbar et al., 2021). At the same time, Gelbar et al. (2021) have found that twice-exceptional students tend to lack these skills to transition to the professional area and succeed in their professional lives. Also, the effort aimed at helping such students to transition to the new stage (professional area) is insufficient while being specifically challenging.
As it follows from the review of the current literature, the majority of studies include the description of 2e students’ characteristics. However, much less attention is paid to the factors affecting the academic achievement of twice-exceptional students, their retention and graduation rates. Quite a sporadic effort has been made in this direction, and only some qualitative studies have explored this aspect of the problem. Some of the factors that have been highlighted include psychosocial features of 2e students, the support of families, educators, friends, counselors, and the participation in educational services aiming at helping the target population. These three major domains will be included in this study, while other factors as defined by the participants will be analyzed.
The purpose of this study is to examine the factors that have effects on the graduation and retention rates, as well as the academic achievement, of 2e students with ASD. In order to address the goal of this research, it is critical to conceptualize the variables and consider the relationship between them (Cohen et al., 2017). One of the measurable academic outcomes can be student retention and graduation rate (see Figure 1). Other outcomes such as test scores, performance, participation in various educational venues, and so on are not included and can become a matter of exploration in further studies. These variables have been chosen as dependent variables that are influenced by a number of factors (independent variables). At this point, it is necessary to note that giftedness and disability (ASD) are highlighted separately to ensure that both domains receive the necessary attention. As mentioned above, only one of these areas is explored in detail while the other remains understudied. The identification of the two aspects to consider will be instrumental in identifying the factors affecting students’ academic outcomes.
The independent variables of this research include psychological and social peculiarities, family, peers, faculty, and legislative factors. Psychological characteristics include the nature of the student’s giftedness, the severity of ASD, resilience, and other psychological traits (personality, motivation, self-esteem, and so on). Among social peculiarities, the following will be central to this study: ethnicity, socioeconomic status of the family, cultural peculiarities, and others. Family (relatives, guardians, and so on) and peers (close friends, group mates, former school classmates, acquaintances) are also influential factors to be analyzed in detail. Faculty, as considered in this study, can include educators, administrators, and counselors that help students succeed academically and socially. Finally, legislative factors are also influential as the existing policies and standards shape the relationships between students and faculty, as well as the provision of educational services, including programs boosting academic performance.
Qualitative Research Design and Approach
Since the focus of this study is on people’s attitudes and opinions, qualitative research methods should be employed to address the aim of this research. The major goal of the qualitative research design is to elicit meanings and attitudes, opinions and experiences (Cohen et al., 2017). Participants share their views on some matters or tell their stories that help in understanding some phenomena. The quantitative study is not appropriate for this research as this approach entails the analysis of quantitative data, such as rates and numbers. Quantitative studies aim at describing some trends or explaining the correlations between different variables. Qualitative studies demonstrate the relationship between variables, so researchers can describe or find the links between different aspects of the issue.
In order to understand the factors that have an influence on student academic outcomes, it is necessary to ask the participants about their views on the matter. The case study design will be the most appropriate type of qualitative research to address this goal. The case study encompasses the analysis of the meaning of experiences and some phenomena the participants form (Cohen et al., 2017). The phenomenological method is also associated with people’s lived experiences and could be used to explore the participants’ perspectives. However, phenomenological studies are concerned with lived experiences and people’s feelings and emotions regarding these instances.
Other types of qualitative research are also hardly appropriate for addressing the goals of this study. No new theories will be developed, so grounded theory study is not an option. The ethnographic study is not an option for this research as students of any cultural groups will be included. At that, cultural aspects will be discussed with the participants during the interviews as they can be influential factors that have an impact on students’ academic achievement, their graduation and retention. This study is aimed at the identification of people’s views and the meanings they form. Therefore, the case study method is the most suitable technique for this research.
One of the most common data collection methods in qualitative research is face-to-face interviews. This technique enables researchers to elicit complete information regarding the participants’ views and attitudes (Cohen et al., 2017). Due to potential COVID-related restrictions or people’s concerns about their health, face-to-face meetings can be replaced with computer-based discussions (implemented with the help of social media (such as Skype, for example)). If the students mentioned by the participants will agree to participate, they can also be interviewed with the help of technology if they live in other areas. Semi-structured interviews will be the technique employed to collect data. This method ensures a focus on the central aspects of the issue but provides the necessary flexibility to explore the topics that are most valued by the participants. This approach involves the development of a set of questions that will guide the interviewing process.
These questions will be developed based on the review of the current literature with the emphasis on the areas that have been already defined as central concerns of the target population. As defined in the conceptual framework, these areas will include the attitudes towards and views on students’ academic achievement (graduation and retention) in relation to some of their personal traits, their socioeconomic status. The questions will also include the perspectives regarding the relationships between the 2e students participating in the study with the family, peers, faculty. Students will also be interviewed about some legislative aspects, but more attention to this factor will be paid during the interviews with educators.
Open-ended questions will be asked during these interviews, which is also a widely used approach in qualitative research. Open-ended questions are instrumental in encouraging the participants to share their views on different facets of the issues and choose the aspects to focus on when discussing their experiences (Cohen et al., 2017). This type of query is also helpful in encouraging the interviewees to share what is really important to them and being sincere and as detailed as possible. With close-ended questions, the answers can be confined to yes and no, which can hardly be informative and can shed light on the issue. Field notes will be taken during the interviews to note the most meaningful details related to the participants’ verbal and non-verbal messages.
Thematic analysis will be the data collection method utilized to address the goals of the research. Since the focus of this study is on the factors affecting twice-exceptional students’ academic achievement, categorization, which is a part of thematic analysis, will be the most appropriate technique. The thematic analysis implies the examination of texts in terms of the most recurrent topics and themes (Cohen et al., 2017). The transcribed interviews will be reread multiple times, and the most recurrent topics and themes will be detected. These choices will be further categorized, and the final factors affecting student outcomes will be explored in detail. Field notes will be analyzed in addition to the analysis of the participants’ accounts.
In order to facilitate the data analysis process, technology is often utilized in modern research. ANOVA will be the software used to analyze the data and present it as this tool enables researchers to implement thematic analysis and present data in diverse ways (tabulated or in the form of graphs) (Cohen et al., 2017). The use of the software will optimize the data analysis process and can be seen as a form of triangulation, which will enhance the reliability of the findings.
Qualitative studies tend to encompass the focus on the experience and attitudes of knowledgeable people who are willing to share their views. In this way, researchers are able to collect a large scope of data and receive the most sincere and complete accounts of the target population (Cohen et al., 2017). Therefore, purposeful sampling is often used as a preferred participant recruitment method. This non-probability sampling technique entails that the researchers use their judgment to choose participants, and no randomization is possible in this case.
Although the random choice of participants may seem the only appropriate method for a study, for qualitative designs, it is not practical since students who have limited knowledge on the matter or are unwilling to share their views can be selected. Purposeful sampling ensures the collection of complete bulk of data for the research. Total population sampling will be utilized as the primary data collection method. At that, the elements of snowball sampling can also be used if some of the participants refer to the people they know and who can be eligible and willing to participate in the study (the students referred to can be enrolled in other colleges).
The college students with ASD and identified as gifted will be invited to participate in this study. The students enrolled in three local higher education establishments will be recruited to take part in this research. Their participation in any educational program will not be an exclusive criterion, while the participants will be asked about such participation to examine the way these programs affect students’ academic outcomes. As far as the educators are concerned, the faculty members employed at the three local colleges will be invited into the study. Total population sampling will also be utilized to recruit the educators.
The inclusion criteria will be the association with 2e exceptional students. The characteristics of the students (such as the degree of giftedness or the form of disability) educators teach or interact with will not be exclusion criteria. Hence, teachers working with students with any disability will be included, although more attention will be paid to their interactions with students with ASD. In simple terms, the members of the faculty (teachers) who have twice-exceptional students in their groups will be invited. All the necessary permissions from the college administration will be received prior to addressing the educators.
Protection of Human Subjects
Since the present study will involve human subjects, it is critical to ensure their safety and confidentiality. In order to adhere to the highest ethical standards, the corresponding permission from the Ethics Review Board will be obtained. The recruiters will be asked to sign written consent forms to ensure that they are aware of the peculiarities of the research and the potential outcomes of their participation. The consent forms will include data regarding the study, its purpose, and methodology. It will be stated that the participants will have the right to withdraw from the study at any point. Security and confidentiality will also be ensured as sensitive information will be stored on the researcher’s device, and no third parties will have access to any confidential data.
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