Students Who Learn About Famous Scientists’ Struggles Do Better In School

Classrooms lionize scientific greats like Albert Einstein—but the extent to which they do so may be harmful for today’s students.

A new study suggests that students who learn about famous scientists’ struggles will perform significantly better in their science classes than students who are just given a laundry list of the same scientists’ intellectual accomplishments.

Pierre and Marie Curie

The researchers studied a group of 400 freshmen and sophomores from the Bronx and Harlem. Some of the students read about scientists’ accomplishments, as they might read in a traditional textbook—while two other groups of students read about celebrated scientists’ personal struggles and professional hurdles, respectively. Here’s Melissa Dahl, writing for Science of Us:

After six weeks, the kids who’d read about these obstacles tended to improve their grades in their science classes, and the kids with the lowest scores at the start of the study benefited the most. Those in the control group—who read the typical, tidied-up version of the scientists’ accomplishments—were also more likely to tell the researchers that they believed Einstein and Curie had a natural talent for science.

In other words, the students who read about Einstein’s and Curie’s complicated lives full of tireless nights and unceasing challenges were much more likely to feel motivated to learn. The effect was especially strong for low-performing students, as the researchers noted in their paper, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

For low-performing students, the exposure to struggling stories led to significantly better science-class performance than low-performing students who read achievement stories. Future research should identify other individual differences among students that might also benefit from this intervention.

The science of motivation is actually quite young—but this study demonstrates that students who have more outlets for understanding scientists’ struggles will be more encouraged to work hard on tough problems. The finding is not altogether surprising, but the availability of data makes a stronger case for implementing these types of subtle changes in classrooms.