Hearing about scientists’ struggles helps inspire students and boosts their learning

Newton worked hard and had an inquisitive nature

Science suffers from an image problem. Many students see the subject as too difficult and they think scientists are aloof boffins with big brains. A new study out of Taiwan tests the benefits of teaching high-school physics pupils about the struggles of eminent physicists – Galileo, Newton and Einstein.

Over the course of three computer-based lessons during one week, 88 low-achieving students were taught not just about the relevant theories developed by these characters but also about their frustrations and perseverance. For instance, they heard about Newton’s hard work and inquisitive nature (including his comment “I keep the subject constantly before me, till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light.”), and they heard about Einstein’s efforts, but ultimate failure, in seeking to develop a unified field theory – an endeavour that he spent the last 25 years of his life working on.

For comparison, a further 93 students completed the three computer-based lessons on the relevant theories but without any background information on the scientists, and 90 more completed a version in which they heard achievement-based background information on the scientists, including their key discoveries and dates.

Learning about scientists’ struggles had several important benefits versus the other two conditions. Students in the struggles condition developed more rounded, less stereotypical images of the scientists, seeing them as people who worked hard. For students who had no initial interest in science, the information about struggles boosted their interest in the subject. Struggles-based background info also improved students’ delayed (a week later) recall of the theoretical material, and it increased their success at complex open-ended problem solving tasks based on the lesson material.

Huang-Yao Hong and Xiadong Lin-Siegler, who made these findings, think the benefit of struggle-based background info for students’ recall may have to do with helping the students to build connections between different key concepts, and with increasing their emotional and cognitive reactions to the course material. Similarly, the researchers think that the struggle-oriented background information helps students see the interconnections between theories, which aids complex problem-solving.

Future research is needed to differentiate the effects of struggle-based information related to the scientists’ work and their personal lives. Also, the findings need to be tested in a different cultural context and over a longer time period.

“By helping students see the real human struggles behind science, we can inspire greater interest and learning to benefit future generations of scientists,” Hong and Lin-Siegler said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHong, H., and Lin-Siegler, X. (2011). How learning about scientists’ struggles influences students’ interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0026224

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “Hearing about scientists’ struggles helps inspire students and boosts their learning”

  1. When I'm studying theories about cognitive psychology and even statistics I look up bio info about the theorists, it just makes it more interesting. Students should be taught about the scientist as much as the science, it makes it more human and accessible. I hope that educational systems make use of these findings!


  2. As a science teacher, I've found that when I tell students stories about scientists lives, it really helps to motivate the students, especially the low motivation students. I regularly check on my students' levels of motivation by asking them to respond to the Science Motivation Questionnaire http://www.coe.uga.edu/smq/
    It tells me who's motivated and who's not. Michael W


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