Can failure spark student interest in the sciences?

Science students don’t often learn about the trials, tribulations and outright failures of histories science rock stars, and that may be hindering them. A recent study found that students actually improve their science grades after learning about the struggles of famous scientists including Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.


The process of trial and error is built in to the scientific method, but science students often don't learn about the trials, tribulations, and outright failures of history's science rock stars, and that may be hindering them.

A recent study found that students actually improved their science grades after learning about the struggles of famous scientists, including Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

Here to explain is the study's lead researcher, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University's Teachers College.

So, why does learning about somebody's struggle improve my ability to learn science?

I think that Marie Curie or Albert Einstein has been described, portrayed in our textbooks and the media as a genius who did not encounter many difficulties, and our kids build that into their head, as well.

When I look at a textbook -- We review a lot of textbooks in high school and middle school.

There's one statement that still sticks in my head.

It said that, 'Albert Einstein is one of the greatest minds that has ever lived.

He is most different from anyone you have ever met.'

So that text struck me as no one can relate to something like that, can measure up to it.

So when they figure out that he had struggles and he had to overcome them, he becomes, what -- a little more human?

They said that -- The students said that they were not shocked that scientists had to work hard.

They said everyone who has to achieve had to work hard, but they were shocked that they had a failure.


And they also said this makes them feel connected to them, because, in our measure, we found out not just science grades increased but also their connection -- feel connected to the scientists, can relate to scientists -- improved.

How did you do this study?

Four schools in New York City participated in the study, and we randomly assigned the kids to one of the three versions of the story they read during the science class and then discussed a little bit.

And so they either read struggle stories or they read -- I mean, achievement, like how brilliant these people are, just like what they describe in a textbook.

So before and after they read these stories, we gave them measures.

We also had their science grades as well as how much they feel connected to the scientists and in what way they feel connected.

And then, we found that, after the group who read the struggle stories outperformed the group who read the achievement stories, not only in grades but also in the connection.

They feel more connected to the scientists.

Another interesting finding is that the people who read the achievement story not only didn't improve, they did worse.

They did worse if they just read the sort of hagiographic hero kind of story.

And three weeks later, they did worse than before we started.

I mean, comparing to the other groups.

So this is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and published from the American Psychological Association?

Funded by NSF, National Science Foundation, and the press released by American Psychological Association.

So is there something that people who are not in school anymore can take from this?

I think that, even if you're not in school, there's still the perception about great people, that they don't have troubles and they just achieved because they were a genius.

Even when I came to the United States, I used to think all Americans write well -- they can write during their sleep -- until I discovered my professor also struggled, and that really shocked me.

Is this part of what motivated you to do this research, your own struggles?

There are two sources of my study.

One is from my personal experience growing up in China.

In our science classes, teachers always read about these stories to us about these great scientists, how they struggled.

And also, I did a study in China a few years ago to just find out whether this actually improves students' grades.

It did over there, as well.

And then, when I look at our textbooks, it's not the same thing.

And another thing is that, I discovered, you look at all the test scores and the international tests.

The Chinese students outperform our students.

I don't know if the two has to do with each other, whether how we portray the science and mathematicians this way that has affected them negatively, so I want to test the theory, if we bring -- if we help kids understand how these great people became great through failures, that would actually engage them more in science classes.


So, what should a teacher take away from this?

I think there are two things.

We really need to have a failure instruction in the classroom, which we don't.

And this failure instruction could include what failure occurred and how it occurred and how you can recover from that.

We're just trying to prevent them from making mistakes, which I think is not doing them a service.

Another thing, I think, in our textbooks, we need to humanize science and scientists by including more stories and narratives about how the content kids are learning came about, which they don't know about that.

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, thank you.