Study: Grades Improve When Kids Learn Great Scientists Struggled Too

Science students who learned about the struggles of famous scientists rather than just their accomplishments performed better academically in a recent study. Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

Scientists get things wrong all the time — even really the good ones.

Albert Einstein, for instance, wasted a lot of time trying to disprove the Big Bang theory, telling Georges Lamaïtre, the author of our dominant cosmological creation model, "Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable."

A recent paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests that in order to teach science in a way that encourages kids to take an interest in trying it out for themselves, we should be teaching them not just about the successes of great scientists, but also their big, fat mistakes.

"Our culture tends to emphasize success," says Dr. Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, lead researcher on the project and associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University's Teachers College. "We tell kids, 'You can be right all the time if you're smart enough — you won't make mistakes if you're a good enough scientist.'"

But in the study of 402 ninth and tenth graders from four low-income high schools in New York City, the grades and survey comments of students who read exclusively about the outstanding genius or successes of famous scientists suggested that the astronomical success of others isn't necessarily a great academic motivator.

Participants were broken up into three study groups, with each group spending time in their science class learning about the lives and careers of three different scientists: Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Michael Faraday. One group read only about the superior intellect or achievements of each scientist, while another read narratives focused on the intellectual and professional struggles of each. A third group read about the personal setbacks each scientist suffered.

Students learned about the personal struggles of Marie Curie, among other famed scientists.
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Students who read about the personal or professional struggles of these paragons of science measurably improved their grades during a single six-week grading period, with normally low-achieving students showing the most significant grade increases. By contrast, those in the group that read only about the notable successes of the scientists scored lower grades than they had in the grading period before the study began.

The study included a diverse group of students, mostly from low-income families, and one in five of whom born outside the Unites States. The results suggest that in order for students to feel it's possible to accomplish great science, the myth that great scientists don't encounter failures and discouraging setbacks in their personal and professional lives has to be dispelled. What makes a great scientists successful is the fact that they keep trying.

"Positive psychology doesn't always lead to positive behaviors," says Lin-Siegler. "The more successful you want to be, the more you encounter failure. Failure hits everybody really hard, but if we stay in the safety zone, there's no creativity. We need to teach our kids to fail well."

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