High-school students may improve their science grades by learning about the personal struggles and failed experiments of great scientists such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, according to a new study led by Professor Xiaodong Lin-Siegler at Teachers College, Columbia University. The study was published online by the American Psychological Association (APA), and as part of a special issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology which was guest-edited by Lin-Siegler.
The study, which was supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, found that students who learned about successful scientists' intellectual or personal struggles significantly improved their science class grades, with the grades of low-achieving students posting the biggest gains. Test grades declined for students who only learned about the scientists' achievements.
"When kids just think Einstein is a genius, then they believe they can never measure up to him," Lin-Siegler said. "Many kids don't know that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way."
Published first online by the APA, the paper, "Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists' Struggles on High School Students' Motivation to Learn Science," is part of a special issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology on academic motivation edited by Lin-Siegler, C. Dweck and G. Cohen that will be published this spring. The special issue, "Instructional Interventions that Motivate Classroom Learning" will include six articles exploring motivation as an important factor that influences students' academic performance.
Steve Graham, editor of the Journal of Education Psychology and Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in Phoenix, said, "I hope this special issue will motivate researchers to move toward more classroom-based motivational intervention research and measurable behavioral changes."
In the Teachers College study, 402 ninth and tenth 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 essay with typical science textbook descriptions about the great accomplishments of Einstein, Curie and Michael Faraday, an English scientist who made important discoveries about electromagnetism. Another group read about those scientists' personal struggles, including Einstein's flight from Nazi Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. The third group of students read about the scientists' intellectual struggles, such as Curie's persistence despite a string of failed experiments.
At the end of a six-week grading period, students who read about the scientists' intellectual or personal struggles were more likely to say the famous scientists were people, like themselves, who had to overcome obstacles and failure to succeed. Students who did not read about scientists' struggles more often believed that the great scientists had innate talent and a special aptitude for science that separated them from everyone else.
Janet N. Ahn, a post-doctoral researcher at Teachers College and co-author of the paper, said the study challenges a tendency in American education for teachers to focus on their students' successes and not their failures. That approach can leave children with the impression that successful scientists are "geniuses," she said, and if the children don't think they are geniuses, then they will never succeed as scientists.
Additional authors of the paper are Teachers College graduate students Myra Luna-Lucero and Fu-Fen Anny Fang , and Jondou Chen, a TC alumnus at the University of Washington. The study is also innovative because it used stories about famous scientists' struggles to motivate students and experimentally tested this approach in a real classroom, said Ahn, who earned a PhD in Social Psychology at New York University.
"A lot of social psychology is based on lab experiments," she said. "This is really my first time to go into the schools, to see what works there, and to apply it. You might find what works in a controlled lab setting might not work in a classroom, where you have kids who are busy learning and socializing, teachers who are busy teaching, and so many levels of distraction and uncontrolled factors."
The results suggest that, in addition to including rich content, science textbooks should highlight the struggles of great scientists rather than just describe their success and list their achievements. Teachers also could use story-based examples in their lessons to motivate students to learn about science, particularly when teaching challenging science topics. Teachers sharing their own struggles in learning science with the students may also motivate them, Lin-Siegler said.
"Many kids don't see science as part of their everyday lives. We teach them content, which is super important, but we never bring it to life," she said. "Our science curriculum is dehumanized, and kids don't relate to it because it's just a string of facts rather than knowledge about how the content was created at first place and how these people met the challenges in their lives."
The study included a diverse sample of students: 37 percent Latino, 31 percent black, 11 percent biracial, 8 percent Asian, 7 percent white and 5 percent other. Almost one in five students was born outside the United States, and a third spoke English only half the time or less at home. Almost three quarters of the students came from low-income families.
In the future, the researchers plan to compare the effectiveness of their approach to various intervention approaches that have been tested in the field on diverse student populations (refer to this paper for more details) They also plan to develop a library or catalog of stories about people (including women, men of different ethnicities and of various fields and areas of expertise) who struggled through their discoveries.
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