Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles Can Motivate High School Students

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 12, 2016 2 min read
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Can learning about Albert Einstein’s struggles help students do better in science class?

New research from the American Psychological Association suggests it can: High schoolers who read about scientists’ personal and academic challenges improved their grades in science class. Students who had low grades before reading the stories were especially likely to improve.

The study is part of a growing body of research that examines both the effect of students’ mindsets toward academic achievement and the approaches teachers can take to influence their approach.

A group of researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, asked 472 freshman and sophomores at four high schools in an unnamed city to read one of three sets of short stories about Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. In one set of stories, the scientists struggled with intellectual challenges. In another, they confronted personal challenges. The third included stories of scientists’ success, with no mention of personal or intellectual struggles.

For instance, the story about Curie’s intellectual struggles showed her revisiting failed experiments again and again. The life struggle story tells how she had to leave her native Poland because women were not allowed to attend school. The story that focused on achievement omitted those struggles and instead described how Curie was fluent in five languages at a young age and won many awards.

Students were given short tests before and after reading the stories that asked questions about their attitudes toward intelligence, effort, goal orientation, and failure. The researchers also examined the students’ grades in science class.

It turned out that students who read about either intellectual or personal struggle were likely to improve their grades in science class after reading the stories. Those who read about achievement did no better after reading the stories.

Students whose grades were low before they read the study were more likely to improve after reading the stories.

Both before and after the students read the stories, those who believed that effort, rather than innate talent, led to success in science tended to do better in science class.

Reading the stories did not, however, change students’ views on whether intelligence itself is innate.

The researchers write that this science teachers might consider introducing narratives about scientists’ struggles alongside content instruction. “Our results suggest that students perform better when messages about effort enabling success are highlighted in science classes,” they write.

They suggest that the lack of impact of the stories on students’ beliefs about intelligence may be because the stories did not explicitly discuss the topic.

The researchers also interviewed students about whether they felt connected to the stories. Students were more likely to feel connected to the stories about struggle, though this was not universally true. (Students who were not interested in science or did not see themselves as having cultural backgrounds similar to the scientists’, for instance, did not see themselves in the stories about struggle.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.