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Feb. 16, 2006 Press Contact: William Harms
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Students’ gestures boost learning

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Students who spontaneously mimic the gestures of their teachers while learning mathematics learn new strategies more quickly than those who don’t, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

Previous research has shown that teacher gesturing improves learning, but this is the first study to show that the gestures students themselves produce have an impact on student learning.

“Including gesture in instruction encourages children to produce gestures of their own, and producing one’s own gestures is associated with learning. Children may thus be able to use their hands to change their minds,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Spontaneous gestures may aid student learning by reducing the amount of memory needed to solve a problem and by providing students with an image, supported by an action, that helps them understand and remember what they've learned, Goldin-Meadow said.

Goldin-Meadow is one of the nation’s leading experts on gesture and its connection to learning. Her latest findings are based on a study she and colleagues conducted with third- and fourth-grade students, who were being taught new ways of understanding addition.

The results are being published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Cognition and Development in an article “The Role of Gesture in Learning: Do Children Use Their Hands to Change Their Minds?” Her co-author is Susan Wagner Cook, a researcher at the University of Chicago. Goldin-Meadow discussed their findings at a press briefing Feb. 16 at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

For the study, researchers worked with 49 students who were given instruction in mathematical equivalence with gesture and without it. Students were shown how to solve an addition problem, such as 4 + 6 + 3 = 4 + __. They were asked to determine what number was needed to make both sides of the equation equal. After the instruction, the students were given problems of their own to solve.

Researchers varied instruction in two ways: some students were taught using only speech, while others were taught using both speech and gesture. As an example, the teacher using gesture swept her left hand under the left side of the equation and then swept her right hand under the right side of the equation. The gestures concretized the idea that the two sides must be treated in the same way to solve the problem correctly.

Researchers found that the best learners were those students who picked up on the teacher’s gestures and used them without being told to. They discovered that students, even those who did not gesture during a pre-test, were very likely to notice the problem-solving strategy that the teacher produced in gesture and reproduce it spontaneously as they solved their own problems.

“Students given instruction in gesture and speech expressed the teacher’s strategy in gesture four times more often than children given instruction in speech alone,” she said. In turn, students who produced the strategy in gesture and speech got significantly more problems right than students who produced it in speech only. Producing the strategy in gesture as well as speech served to cement learning.

The research was supported by a grant from NICHD and a Spencer Foundation grant to Goldin-Meadow.
Last modified at 02:04 PM CST on Monday, February 12, 2007.

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