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The Right Gesture in Math


Most teachers have probably seen their students transmit all kinds of silly, strange, and downright inappropriate gestures over the course of the school day. But sometimes in-class gestures can have a benign and productive effect, at least in mathematics.

That's the conclusion of a new study published online in the journal Psychological Science this month. It found that children required to produce correct gestures learned more than children required to produce partially correct gestures, who, in turn, learned more than children required to produce no gestures.

The researchers, who included Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Chicago and others from that institution and the University of Iowa, manipulated student gestures during math lessons and studied the results.

The findings suggest that body movements are related not only to processing old ideas, but also in creating new ones, the authors assert. "We may be able to lay foundations for new knowledge simply by telling learners how to move their hands," the study explains in its abstract.


I feel that using hand motions while you are trying to teach a lesson is a good way to get the message to students. In my Educational Psychology course at Kent State we were taught that learning invovles TPR- Total Physical Response. Which invovles teaching the students motion that correlate with the informaiton that is being discussed. I use hand motion when I am studying for test and it helps. When I have to think back to the subject it is easier to remember because of the hand motions that I came up with. I can totally agree that teaching hand motions will help students retain information longer.

Walk into an engineering exam and count the number of people gesturing the "right-hand rule". Go back to first grade - it's natural for students to count on their fingers. It helps them connect the abstract (addition/subtraction) to the physical (counting things). Many teachers discourage this connection by telling students not to use their fingers.

Given that it was a math lesson (and not, say, a lesson on gold leaf applique techniques) did you co-vary out relationships of spatial and musical aptitude?

Hey folks! This study is not what you think it is. The headline in Science Daily, as well as here, is misleading. Come on Edweek Staff, read the actual research--not just the summary. Perhaps EdWeek could indicate what the study actually did, rather than take the sound bites, that way folks could use the research as a jumping off point for discussion. This is a good example of research gone a muck.

Here is what the researchers did:
Problem Type: 3+2+8=__+8.
Condition #1: They had the teacher model for the students using two fingers [index and pointer making the "peace" sign] to point to the 3 and the 2 in the problem on one side, then the blank spot on the other, while saying: "I want to make one side equal to the other side." They asked the students to do and say the same thing. They didn't tell the student why.
Condition #2: Everything was the same, EXCEPT, the teacher pointed to the 2 and the 8, then the blank spot while saying the same words.
Condition #3: Showed the problem to the student and just had them say the words--no pointing to one side or the other.
Researchers conclusion was that having students use the "two finger" to blank spot gesture to point to the problem parts increases student achievement. Think about it. The students who were shown which numbers to solve for got the problem correct. The ones who were shown the wrong numbers to solve for, but had pointed out the one side versus the other distinction did a little better than the ones who were not shown which numbers to solve for, or provided any information about what "sides" mean.

1. Sadly, the researchers do not fully seem to understand the features of cognitive processes (e.g., teacher models and prompts attention to relevant features of a problem) and instructional design (e.g., the strategy instructed and the example sets could lead to solving only this particular type of "equivalence" problem and would have a poor chance of promoting generalized responding to other similar problems and may even induce errors).
2. I am not even sure that the researchers are using a good definition of "motor-learning". Seems to me this could also be defined as a way the teacher determines if the student is attending to the correct features in the problem.
3. Their conclusion seems to be a real leap.

4. Another conclusion could be:

Asking students to attend to the relevant features in the problem works better than attending to the irrelevant features. Showing students to point to the side of the problem they need to start solving on is better than asking students to figure it out on their own. Bottom line: prompting students to solve a problem correctly works better than prompting them to solve it incorrectly or leaving the students to figure out how to solve it by themselves. Not sure we needed another experiment to demonstrate that...

Come on EdWeek, this is the research blog--help us out a little...

Thanks to all the readers for their comments. To the last person who wrote in, I appreciate your detailed thoughts on the study. But you have a misconception about this blog. Let me rectify it. This is not a "research blog," per se. While we touch on research issues, our focus is much broader. This blog focuses on trends in curriculum, teaching, and many issues that affect instruction, in math, science, reading, history, other subjects. We do write on occasion about relevant research, mostly as a way to point readers, very quickly, to studies and reports that might interest them. We also write full stories on ed research in our newspaper fairly often. Unfortunately, I can't post the study itself for readers (it requires a subscription; we had to pay for it) What I've tried to do is point them to the original study in a fairly direct and, I hope, engaging way (in four paragraphs). You will not find too much detailed information on effect sizes, variables and the like on this blog.

Again, since I can't post the study itself, here's a press release posted by U of Chicago, with some more detailed information from one of the authors:


Here's a story from the Economist:


Again, thank you all for reading, and for writing.


Sean: Thanks for responding. I find your answer re: the purpose of the blog, however, incredibly sad for the professions of journalism and education. The blog doesn't need to focus on research in order to present info about research using a critical eye-- even in four paragraphs. In this case, you could've done it in one. "Researchers claim using gestures while teaching math improves student performance. However, the study seems flawed on several points (e.g., it may not be the gesture that improves performance; it might be the teacher modeling the correct response). You need a subscription to read
the article, but here are some other links that
describe what they did:(links). What do you think?"
If EdWeek is going promote a discussion about any curricular area, shouldn't it be based on an accurate view of the evidence available? Otherwise you seem to be encouraging a fashion-industry approach to education conversations: what's the latest trend?; do you like it?; how does it feel?. Which is fine, if your goal is to provide a space for style commentary. Not so great for moving curriculum and instruction toward profession-enhancing, thought-provoking, evidenced-filled discussions.

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