Students who were taught to solve problems with the help of gestures are more likely to develop new ways of understanding mathematics than those who are taught only by words, according to a study at the University of Chicago.
Although its long known that movements help retrieve information about an event or physical activity associated with action, this is the first study to show that gestures not only help recover old ideas but help create new ones also.
Scholars believe that this information may be helpful to teachers in improving coaching methods in the class.
"This study highlights the importance of motor learning even in nonmotor tasks, and suggests that we may be able to lay the foundation for new knowledge just by telling learners how to move their hands," wrote lead author and psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow.
For the study, the researchers gave 128 fourth-grade students problems of the type 3+2+8=__+8. None of the students had been successful in solving that type of problem in a pre-test. The students were randomly divided into three instruction groups.
One group was taught the words: "I want to make one side equal to the other side."
The second group was taught the same words along with gestures instantiating a grouping problem-solving strategy--a V-shaped hand indicating 3+2, followed by a point at the blank (group and add 3 and 2 and put the sum in the blank).
And the third group was taught the words along with gestures instantiating the grouping strategy but focusing attention on the wrong numbers--a V-shaped hand indicating 2+8, followed by a point at blank. The experimenter demonstrating the gesture did not explain the movement or comment about it.
The students were then given the same mathematics lesson and were asked to repeat the words or words/gestures they had been taught on each problem during the lesson. They were later given a test in which they solved new problems of this type, and explained how they reached their answers.
Students who repeated the correct gesture during the lesson solved more problems correctly than students who repeated the partially correct gesture, who, in turn, solved more problems correctly than students who repeated only the words.
Goldin-Meadow said that the number of problems children solved correctly could be explained by whether they added the grouping strategy to their spoken repertoires after the lesson.
And as the experimenter never expressed the grouping strategy in speech during the lesson, and students themselves picked it up as a new idea, the study proved that gesture could help create new concepts in learning.
"The grouping information students incorporated into their post-lesson speech must have come from their own gestures. Children were thus able to extract information from their own hand movements. This process may be the mechanism by which gesturing influences learning," said Goldin-Meadow.
The study, titled "Gesturing Gives Children New Ideas About Math," has been published in the journal Psychological Science.