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Use hand gestures to boost learning

The use of hand gestures while learning a new concept improves the ability to retain that concept, says a study.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 26, 2007 12:50 IST

A new research has found that hand gestures dramatically improve learning and understanding a new concept.

A University of Rochester scientist has suggested that the use of hand gestures while learning a new concept considerably improves the ability to retain that concept.

Kids asked to physically signal at math problems are almost three times more likely than non-gesturers to remember what they’ve learned.

The study shows that it’s feasible to help children learn difficult concepts by providing gestures as an added and powerful way for absorbing information.

“We’ve known for a while that we use gestures to add information to a conversation even when we’re not entirely clear how that information relates to what we’re saying. We asked if the reverse could be true; if actively employing gestures when learning helps retain new information,” says Susan Wagner Cook, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the University.

In Cook’s study, 90 per cent of students who had learned algebraic concepts using gestures remembered them three weeks later.

Only 33 per cent of speech-only students who had learned the concept during instruction later retained the lesson. And perhaps most surprising of all, 90 per cent of students who had learned by gesture alone, no speech at all, recollected what they’d been taught.

<b1>Cook used a variation on a classic gesturing experiment. When third graders approach a two-sided algebra equation, such as “9+3+6=__+6” on a blackboard, they will likely try to solve it in the simple way they have always approached math problems.

However, even when children discard that final integer, they will often point to it momentarily as they explain how they attacked the problem.

Those children who gestured to the number, even though they may seem to ignore it, are demonstrating that they have a piece of information they can’t reconcile.

Cook divided 84 third and fourth graders into three groups. One group expressed the concept verbally without being allowed to use gestures.

The second group was allowed to use only gestures and no speech, and the third group employed both. Teachers gave all the children the same instruction, which used both speech and gesture.

After three weeks, the children were given regular in-school math tests. Of those children who had learned to solve the problem correctly, only a third of the speech-only students remembered the principles involved, but that figure rose spectacularly for the speech-and-gesture, and the gesture-only group, to 90 per cent retention.

“My intuition is that gestures enhance learning because they capitalise on our experience acting in the world. We have a lot of experience learning through interacting with our environment as we grow, and my guess is that gesturing taps into that need to experience,” Cook says.

Cook plans to look into how gesturing could be implemented effectively in classrooms, to make a noticeable improvement in children’s learning.

“Gesturing does have one clear benefit. It’s free,” she concludes.