Hand Gestures Help Students Mentally Organise New Information

By Emma L. Barratt

Retaining new information can be tricky, especially with topics far outside of what we’re familiar with. A good teacher can make a huge difference, but effective teaching techniques can add new dimensions to our ability to really take on what we’re being told.

A new study by academics from the University of California and University of Georgia identifies one such technique, and it turns out to be incredibly simple: hand gestures.

The team wanted to know if gestures used by teachers could assist in mental organisation of new information, and help students retain and understand lesson content. To do this, they devised two experiments, looking specifically at two types of hand motion: structure gestures, which indicated which of two groups was being discussed by gestures made to the left or right, and surface gestures, which illustrated physical characteristics.

In the first experiment, student participants (N=123) were shown one of four videos depicting an instructor using one, both, or neither of these types of gestures to embellish their lesson on steamboats. Structure gestures — moving their hands to the left or right — were used to indicate whether they were discussing eastern or western steamboats, respectively. Surface gestures, on the other hand, were used to indicate physical features about the depth of the hull, with the instructor moving their hands apart or together to illustrate comparative depths.

Once the video lesson was complete, the students were given a series of computer-based tasks which probed their retention of the lesson material. During recall and matching tasks, students were asked to write a summary of the lesson they had received and match a set of facts to their respective steamboat vehicles.

Students also completed an inference test, where they were asked to make connections between different steamboat characteristics, answering questions like “If a steamboat operates on a shallow river, what does that tell you about the pressure of the steamboat’s engine?” This test in particular was chosen as a good measure of whether students had constructed a well-organised mental representation of their new steamboat knowledge, because it requires an amount of mental manipulation, as opposed to just an ability to recall lesson content.

The team found that students who had seen the lesson with structure gestures scored significantly higher in inference tests. This suggests that physical gestures allocating spoken information into physical spaces helps students to better construct an organised mental framework of lesson material, from which they could make accurate inferences.

However, gestures aren’t a silver bullet for everything. Neither structure nor surface gestures improved basic recall of the material. Similarly, participants who saw surface gestures showed no difference in their inference scores compared to those who didn’t.

The researchers built on these findings in a second experiment which took much the same form. This time, however, the videos were much more complex. Focusing on innate and adaptive immunity, the lessons contained nearly twice as many words and included many more comparisons than the steamboat lesson.

Even though these lessons were significantly more complex to follow, the results were similarly promising. Once again, structure gestures that divided innate and adaptive immunity using left and right gestures, respectively, significantly boosted student (N=170) scores in the inference test portion. And, as with experiment number one, surface gestures — which consisted of placing hands further apart or closer to indicate how specific an immune response is — did not assist with inference scores. Neither gesture improved overall recall of the material.

The researchers believe that these findings are in line with the previously proposed construction-integration model of learning, and that left/right structure gestures provided a scaffold upon which students could better build links between lesson content. In future research, there’s scope to explore how this technique can be applied to other types of gestures beyond those used for simple comparisons, as well as verifying that this effect can be generalised to the classroom, where attention may be more easily distracted.

Using gestures to signal lesson structure and foster meaningful learning

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest