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Give Math a Thumbs-Up! Gestures Boost Learning, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 01, 2013 1 min read
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Math often can feel a little abstract to students, but teachers who gesture as they explain equations can make them more concrete for students, according to a study published online in the journal Child Development.

In the study, “Consolidation and Transfer of Learning After Observing Hand Gesture,” psychologists from the University of Iowa and Michigan State University taught 184 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-graders a lesson about mathematical equivalence, a foundation concept for algebra.

Half of the students saw a video in which a teacher explained the lesson, giving an example problem such as “6+3+7=_+7.” The other students also saw a video of the same lesson, but the teacher also used hand gestures to emphasize the different sides of the equation.

Students who had the lesson including hand gestures performed better than the other group on a test of the material immediately after the lesson and, on another test a day later, the students who received the gesture lesson improved on their previous performance, while the other students did not.

“Gesturing can be a very beneficial tool that is completely free and easily employed in classrooms,” said Kimberly Fenn, study co-author and an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, in a statement. “I think it can have long-lasting effects.”

The findings built on a previous study by lead author Susan W. Cook, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Iowa, which found that gestures can help people make abstract concepts more concrete.

American teachers use fewer hand gestures during instruction, compared to those in other countries, but interest in embodied cognition has been growing in recent years, for many reasons, including: emerging research on the physical underpinnings of learning, concern over childhood obesity, and rising technological capacity to include physical action in learning.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.