When we speak, we naturally gesticulate – we open our palms, we show, we chop the air for emphasis. Such a movement can be more than unnecessary hand flapping. It helps convey ideas to the audience and even seems to help the speakers think and learn.
A growing field of psychological research is exploring the potential for students or teachers to gesticulate when students are studying. Studies have shown that people remember material better when they make spontaneous gestures, observe a teacher’s movements, or use their hands and arms to mimic the instructor. Recent work suggests that telling learners to move in a certain way can help them – even if they don’t know why they are doing the movements.
One study included people asked to swing or stretch their arms – both groups were told the exercise should make blood flow. The researchers found that those who swung their arms were more likely to solve a puzzle that required a certain insight: in order to connect two strings hanging from the ceiling that were too far apart to reach at the same time, they had to one Attach a weight to one to turn it into a pendulum. The trick with blood flow worked: only three participants suspected a connection between swinging or stretching their arms and solving the task. Apparently, this type of directed movement helps with thinking even without a conscious connection to what a person is doing.
New work from researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and California State University at Los Angeles expand this finding. “We’re trying to test where the limit of the power of gestures lies,” says Icy (Yunyi) Zhang, a psychology student at UCLA and lead author of the newspaper. Researchers set about it by testing the unconscious effects of instructed hand movements on learning an abstract concept in statistics.
In the first of two experiments reported in the February issue of Cognitive science, Sixty students came to a laboratory to watch a short video. The video explained the idea of a statistical model, a function that generates predictions. It showed data as bars of histograms and models as means or averages of the data. (The simplest model of a collection of numbers is the mean.) Study participants were divided into three groups. A control group simply watched the video. A “match” group watched the same video overlaid with animation. For the latter group, when the narrator said, for example, that one set of data had more variations than another – represented by histograms with more bars along them x Axis – Two vertical red bars (independent of the histogram bars) have been removed from each other. These participants were asked to mimic the movement of the red bars with their hands, hold them vertically, and move them apart. A “disagreement group” was instructed to imitate red bars moving in ways inconsistent with the lesson. For example, while describing the variation, they were horizontal and were moved vertically.
After watching the video three times, all participants took part in a short quiz. The match group outperformed the mismatch group with an average of 16.3 to 12.6 (from a maximum score of 23), and the control group registered an intermediate score. A second experiment reproduced the results with 130 college students, this time sitting at laptops. The game participants achieved an average of 4.4 out of five points, outperforming both the control group (four points) and the disagreement group (3.8).
“It’s a nice, neat demonstration” of the benefits of exercise, says Martha Alibali, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies gestures in education and was not involved in the study. A model, she says, is “a very important concept, a really basic statistical concept”.
“I like the fact that [the field] moves in this new area of statistics, ”says Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who has done extensive work on gestures but was also not involved in the study.
One question that hasn’t been tested is whether just looking at the matching animation can improve performance as well as mimicking it. Zhang does not believe this and cites previous work that shows that gesturing has advantages over watching animation.
The researchers had not disclosed the aim of the experiment to the students. They hid their intent by telling the subjects a cover story and saying the study focused on multitasking. Then they asked the students to guess the real purpose. Of those who gesticulated, only about a third in the match group and a fifth in the mismatch group suspected that the study had something to do with improving learning through gestures. Even if the students who understood the purpose of the study were excluded, those in the group who performed consistent movements were helped by the exercise. Goldin-Meadow calls this aspect of the study “a really nice, interesting result”.
Zhang was impressed by the unconscious effects of the instructed movements. “It definitely convinced me of the power of embodied knowledge,” she says, “that physical interaction with our surroundings affects even abstract thinking in ways that we don’t always realize.”
Gesticulating has another advantage: it keeps the learners busy. Students rated how well they understood the video after each of the three visits. Those in the two hand movement groups gave higher ratings each time. However, the control group’s ratings dropped about 20 percent from the second to the third ad – possibly due to the frustration of having to watch the video again instead of compromising understanding. She may have absorbed the movement demanded by the other groups.
Some teachers in the classroom have already used movement as a learning tool. Alibali notes that her daughter’s algebra class was doing “slope exercises” with students, getting up from their seats, and moving their arms to perform various functions. Zhang says her work has the potential to apply any lesson that has a spatial component in the classroom and that it could be adapted for classrooms or online learning. “I think gestures are used all the time in the classroom,” says Goldin-Meadow.