Stories of people who’ve had to struggle and persevere through adversity in order to reach success have long been the central themes of our favorite books and movies. Now a new study suggests that incorporating these struggle-to-success stories into the classroom can significantly help improve students’ grades, particularly low-achieving students.
The study, published online in the Journal of Educational Psychology, found that high school students who learned about the personal struggles and failed experiments of great scientists such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie saw a significant jump in their science grades.
For the research, 402 ninth and 10th-grade students from four New York City high schools in low-income areas of the Bronx and Harlem were divided into three groups. The control group read an 800-word typical science textbook description about the great accomplishments of Einstein, Curie, and Michael Faraday, the English scientist who made important discoveries about electromagnetism.
Another group, however, learned about those scientists’ personal struggles, such as Einstein’s flight from Nazi Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. The third group of students learned about the scientists’ intellectual struggles, such as Curie’s persistence even after she experienced several failed experiments. The struggle stories included actions the scientists took to overcome these obstacles.
At the end of a six-week grading period, students who learned about the scientists’ intellectual or personal struggles had significantly improved their science grades, with low achievers benefiting the most.
The control group who only learned about the scientists’ achievements, but not their struggles, actually had lower grades than they’d had before the study began.
“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up,” said lead researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, Ph.D. “Many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”
Furthermore, students who learned about the scientists’ intellectual or personal struggles were more likely to say that the famous scientists were regular people, much like themselves, who had to overcome failure and obstacles to succeed. The control group students, however, were more likely to believe that the great scientists had innate talent and a special aptitude for science.
The findings suggest that science textbooks should highlight the struggles of great scientists and provide more vivid narrative descriptions of the techniques that scientists used to overcome challenges, said Lin-Siegler, an associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“Many kids don’t see science as 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.”