Interaction between stereotypes, expectations of success, and learning from failure
An interesting study suggesting that role models and how they’re described (in terms of their achievements, or in terms of their struggles) has an interaction with students’ stereotypes about scientists and other professionals in STEM fields. So there are not just cognitive benefits to learning from failure, but there are affective dimensions to focusing on the struggle (including failures) and not just the success.
But when the researchers exposed middle-school girls to women who were feminine and successful in STEM fields, the experience actually diminished the girls’ interest in math, depressed their plans to study math, and reduced their expectations of future success. The women’s “combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls,” the authors conclude, adding that “gender-neutral STEM role models,” as well as feminine women who were successful in non-STEM fields, did not have this effect.
Does this mean that we have to give up our most illustrious role models? There is a way to gain inspiration from truly exceptional individuals: attend to their failures as well as their successes. This was demonstrated in a study by Huang-Yao Hong of National Chengchi University in Taiwan and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University.
The researchers gave a group of physics students information about the theories of Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein. A second group received readings praising the achievements of these scientists. And a third group was given a text that described the thinkers’ struggles. The students who learned about scientists’ struggles developed less-stereotyped images of scientists, became more interested in science, remembered the material better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson—while the students who read the achievement-based text actually developed more stereotypical images of scientists.