Children's Math Skills Improved With Use Of Hand Gestures: Study
March 12, 2014

Children’s Math Skills Improved With Use Of Hand Gestures: Study

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Children who use hand gesturing while learning math develop a better understanding of the problems they are taught, according to new research from University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology.

While previous research has found that hand gestures can indeed help children learn, the current study focused on whether abstract gesturing can support generalization beyond a particular problem, and whether it is a more effective teaching tool than concrete action.

“We found that acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning,” said the study’s lead author, Miriam A. Novack, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Chicago.

Novack and colleagues instructed third-grade children on a strategy for solving a particular type of mathematical equivalence problem – for example, 4 + 2 + 6 = ____ + 6. They then tested the students on similar mathematical equivalence problems to determine how well they understood the underlying concepts.

The researchers randomly assigned 90 children to conditions in which they learned using different kinds of physical interaction with the material. In one group, children picked up magnetic number tiles and put them in the proper place in the formula. For instance, for the problem 4 + 2 + 6 = ___ + 6, they picked up the 4 and 2 and placed them on a magnetic whiteboard.

Another group mimicked that action without actually touching the tiles, while a third group was instructed to use abstract hand gestures to solve the equations.

In the abstract gesture group, children were taught to produce a V-point gesture with their fingers under two of the numbers, metaphorically grouping them, followed by pointing a finger at the blank in the equation.

The children were tested before and after solving each problem, including those that required them to generalize beyond what they had learned in grouping the numbers. For example, they were given problems that were similar to the original one, but had different numbers on both sides of the equation.

The results showed that while children in all three groups learned the problems they had been taught, the children who gestured during the lesson were the only ones successful on the generalization problems.

“Abstract gesture was most effective in encouraging learners to generalize the knowledge they had gained during instruction, action least effective, and concrete gesture somewhere in between,” said senior author Susan Goldin-Meadow, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

“Our findings provide the first evidence that gesture not only supports learning a task at hand but, more importantly, leads to generalization beyond the task. Children appear to learn underlying principles from their actions only insofar as those actions can be interpreted symbolically.”

The study is published online in the journal Psychological Science.