How Our Bodies Do - and Don't - Shape Our Minds
A specific type of action, hand gesturing, has been found to have implications for learning. While gesture is understood to be helpful in conveying particularly ambiguous or subjective information, Susan Wagner Cook, a professor at the University of Iowa, wanted to investigate the role of gesture specifically in learning. Of particular interest is whether gesture can aid learning of more formal, abstract material such as math.
In an experiment teaching students about the equal sign as a symbol of mathematical equivalence (rather than as a “put answer here” symbol, which younger children often think it is), she found that when the instructor used gesture while teaching the lesson, students did indeed improve testing performance both immediately and days later.
To investigate possible confounding variables such as other nonverbal behaviors or the quality of speech, Cook created an animated avatar whose movements could be tightly controlled when teaching the math lessons. Once again, subjects who saw the gesturing avatar learned the concept more fully, and also were more successful at generalizing the concept to other math problems.