The way students study and retain information has long been a focus of educational research. Improving grades with sleeping tips, exercise, and even music is possible, but what about personal stories?
A new study by the American Psychological Association found that students may be able to improve their science grades by learning about the failed projects and personal struggles of great scientists like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. The research involved 402 9th- and 10th-grade students from various New York City high schools in low-income areas of the Bronx and Harlem. The kids were divided into three study groups, with the control group reading an 800-word passage from a typical science text book about the great accomplishments of Curie, Einstein and Michael Faraday, a scientist who made important advancements in the field of electromagnetism.
One of the other groups read about the intellectual struggles of the scientists, including Curie’s determined work despite many failed experiments, and the third group read about the personal problems the scientists dealt with, such as Einstein escaping Nazi Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. After six weeks, the students who learned about either the intellectual or personal struggles of a scientist significantly improved their grades, with low-achievers benefiting the most. The students in the control group did not enjoy the same grade increase — quite the contrary, as they had even lower grades than the previous grading period.
“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up,” lead researcher Dr. Xiaodong Lin-Siegler said in a statement. “Many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”
The students who read about the scientists’ struggles were also more likely to believe the famous researchers were people, like themselves, who had to overcome obstacles and setbacks to be successful. Control group kids, by contrast, were more likely to say the great scientists were born with an innate talent and aptitude for science. The study, according to Lin-Siegler, suggests more science textbooks should highlight the challenges great scientists had to overcome to get where they were, and provide more descriptive narratives about how exactly they worked to get past their struggles.
“Many kids don’t see science as a part of their everyday lives. We teach them important content, but we never bring it to life,” she said. “Our science curriculum is impersonal, and kids have a hard time relating to it because they just see a long list of facts that they have to memorize.”
Source: Lin-Siegler X, Ahn J, Fang F, Luna-Lucero M. Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles of High School Students’ Motivation to Learn Science. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2016.