Gesturing at your math problem

You know, when I was still in school, and struggling with math, I frequently gestured at my math homework. However, it turns out, I was increasing my retention by flipping the bird at that derivative!

“Kids asked to physically gesture at math problems are nearly three times more likely than non-gesturers to remember what they’ve learned. In today’s issue of the journal Cognition, a University of Rochester scientist suggests it’s possible to help children learn difficult concepts by providing gestures as an additional and potent avenue for taking in information….

In her study, 90 percent of students who had learned algebraic concepts using gestures remembered them three weeks later. Only 33 percent of speech-only students who had learned the concept during instruction later retained the lesson. And perhaps most astonishing of all, 90 percent of students who had learned by gesture alone–no speech at all–recalled what they’d been taught.”

Ok, in this study, they were pointing, not making rude gestures. But still, that linking of motor to mental skills seems to have a huge payoff!

What a great example of a simple (free!) addition to instruction that can yield great results. The researcher plans to quantify more about what gestures work best.

(and how funny is it that Wikipedia has a page on the middle finger salute? :) )


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I read that report too, but it didn't seem to help if you used the same gesture or set of gestures for every single math problem. For what it's worth, here are the gestures I tried: Good ole' one finger salute, grabbing my hair with both hands on either side of my head in a fist-like fashion, wadding up my homework, throwing my math book across the room, and playing my Xbox hoping that that particular problem won't be graded.

    None of those seemed to behoove me.

  2. Wow, this is very cool. I've heard a lot about how some people are visual learners, some are verbal, and some are . . . kinetic? But I'd never guess that such a large percentage of people could be helped by movement.

  3. While I'm suprised by the magnitude of the benefit, I am not suprised that a benefit exists.

    I was always worried in exams when I sat there gesticulating ( particularly in Chem, when rotating molecules required hand movements to turn them in my head) that I would be accused of cheating. If I'd know this I could have had a defence at the ready. Even now at work I sit at my desk (when no one is looking) constucting vessels and pipes in the air to understand a problem.

  4. It probably should not be so surprising. Lots of people Talk with their hands. Why not Learn?

    I think people are culturally predisposed to underestimating the importance of the mind-body connection. You grow up hearing about the Spirit and the Mind and sort of accept that notion without even realizing you do, even if you are not religious. As I understand it, there is nothing in science which suggests a partition between mind and body. There are physical reasons for mental illness and there is a lot of evidence suggesting that proper mental functioning is strongly coupled to proper physical functioning and even further to proper diet and exercise. This sort of establishes a precedent that movement is ultimately associated with "mind".

    As I understand it, much of human communication occurs by physical cues and by body movement, rather than by voice. That's part of why people talk with their hands. It does not seem like so long a step to me that learning, or reception of communications and enforcement of that communication as memories, is also linked to motion.

    It is additionally unfortunate that the rise of internet and cellular phones effectively hamstring the physical side of communication and personal interaction. While we are coming to know more about how important things like gestures and facial expressions are, our technology, so often embraced as progress, reduces our exposure to them and can't really give people the experience to learn to use them effectively. I would argue that a person is incomplete without a body and that one of the main thrusts of current technology is to dissembody people.

    I think I'll leave off there. I think there is a lot more related to this which I would say, but I doubt anybody would notice or find it valuable if I posted it.

  5. Well, there *is* the video-like nature of some kinds of memory.
    You know – the deal where you listen to a radio play or music mix tape while driving, and then when listening to it again, you can link the soundtrack to where you were when you heard each bit (or vice versa), or how you start to remember a conversation and you can reconstruct locations and imagery of who you were talking to and where they were standing and how they moved as the conversation progressed?
    I’m sure there’s a proper word for that that doesn’t have the woo connotations of ‘holistic’.

    Maybe reading a book in a relatively fixed location just doesn’t engage as many circuits in the mind as it could, especially for algebraic math[s], where there’s not really a narrative to cast generated imagery around, and not even much of an simple abstract geometric alternative.
    Things might be tricky to remember if they don’t ‘happen’, and algebra might not have much of an ‘event’ feeling to it for many people.
    There’s no inbuilt sense of time passing – X just *is* 2, in a timeless sense.

    Why worry if people are looking?
    One useful side effect of ‘thinking’ hand gestures is that, like sucking the end of a pencil, they’re a useful way of saying “**** off, I’m thinking” without actually being remotely impolite.

  6. Speaking of gnawing pencils, maybe you could link different ways of sucking/biting your pencil with diferent math problems?

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