Hand Gestures

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A simple wave of the hand can boost a child’s performance in mathematics.

A new study published in Child Development found that students perform better when instructors teach with hand gestures—something that teachers in the United States do less commonly than teachers in other parts of the world.

National Geographic reported on this study that suggests being able to learn material vibrantly first and foremost comes from a vibrant and active teacher.

Lead researchers, psychologists Kimberly Fenn (University of Michigan) and Susan Wagner Cook (University of Iowa) tested over 100 elementary students to see if hand gestures can have an impact on a young students ability to learn math.

Half of the students watched videos in which instructors waved their hands under each side of the equation while explaining that both sides should be equal. The other half watched speech-only videos in which the teachers used words but no gestures to convey the same information.

In a test given immediately afterward, students who observed the gestures performed better.  A second test, 24 hours later, also showed that the gestured-to students had an edge over the other group.

An interesting fact is that a 2008 study found that American teachers were less likely than those in Hong Kong and Japan to use gestures in explaining analogies,

Why are hand gestures effective in learning ?

Previous studies have also found that hand gestures improve students’ learning ability, but very little is known about why.

Fenn purports that students with a gesturing instructor don’t just remember the concepts, they also remember the teacher’s movements: “When you watch someone perform an [action], it actually stimulates areas of the brain that you would use to perform that action.”


To learn more about the body and gestures, we suggest you pick up a copy of Nonverbal Communication: Science and Applications and read Chapter 4 “The Body and Gestures”

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