Teachers’ Gestures Can Help Students Learn

Over the years, I’ve written about the importance of “embodied cognition.

In other words: we know with our brains, and we know with and through our bodies.

Scholars such as Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow and Dr. Sian Beilock have done splendid and helpful work in this field.

Their research suggests that students might learn more when they make the right kind of gesture.

Other scholars have shown that — in online lectures — the right kind of pointing helps too.

What about the teachers‘ gestures? Can we help students learn in the way we use our hands?

Dr. Celeste Pilegard wanted to find out

Steamboats, East and West

Pilegard invited college students to watch brief video lectures. The topic: the differences between Eastern and Western steamboats. (You think I’m joking. I’m not joking.)

These students watched one of four versions:

In the first version, the teacher’s gestures focused on the surface features of the steamboats themselves (how deep they sit in the water, for instance).

In the second version, the gestures focused on the structure of the lesson (“Now I’m talking about Eastern steamboats, and NOW I’m talking about Western steamboats.”).

Third version: gestures emphasized BOTH surface AND structural features.

Fourth version: a control group saw a video with neutral, content-free gestures.

Did those gestures make a difference for learning?

Pilegard, in fact, measured learning in two ways:

Did the students remember the facts?

Could the students apply those facts by drawing inferences?

So, what did she discover?

No, but Yes

Researchers typically make predictions about their findings.

In this case, Pilegard predicted that neither the surface gestures (about steamboats) nor the structural gestures (about the logic of the lesson) would help students remember facts.

But, she predicted that the structural gestures would help students draw inferences. (“If a steamboat operates on a shallow river, what does that tell you about the pressure of the steamboat’s engine?”) Surface gestures, she predicted, would not improve inferences.

Sure enough, Pilegard was 2 for 2.

Watching gestures didn’t help students remember facts any better. However, students who watched structural gestures (but not surface gestures) did better on inference questions. (Stats types: the Cohen’s d was 0.39; an impressive bonus for such a small intervention.)

When Pilegard repeated the experiment with a video on “innate vs. acquired immunity,” she got the same results.

Implications and Cautions

As teachers, we know that every little bit helps. When we use gestures to reinforce the underlying logical structure of our explanations, doing so might help students learn more.

As we plan, therefore, we should be consciously aware of our lesson’s logical structure, and think a bit about how gestures might reinforce that structure.

At the same time, regular readers know that all the usual cautions apply:

We should look at groups of studies, not just one study.

Pilegard’s research focused on college students. Will this strategy work with other students? We don’t know for sure.

These video lessons were quite short: under two minutes each. Will this strategy work over longer periods of time? We don’t know for sure.

In other words — this research offers a promising strategy. And, we need more research with students who resemble our own classrooms and lessons that last longer to have greater confidence.

I myself do plan to think about gestures for upcoming lessons. But I won’t ignore all the other teaching strategies (retrieval practice, cognitive load management, etc.). Here’s hoping that future research can point the way…

By the way:

Teachers often ask how they can get copies of research to study it for themselves.

Easy answer #1: Google Scholar.

If that doesn’t work, I recommend easy answer #2: email the researcher.

In this case, I emailed Dr. Pilegard asking for a copy of the study — and she emailed it to me 11 minutes later.

In honor of her doing so, I’m creating the Pilegard Award for Prompt Generosity in Sharing Research with People who Email You Out of the Blue.

No doubt it will be much coveted.


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