Gestures Help Your Listeners Learn Better

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Students learn better when their instructors use hand gestures, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development. From the website ScienceDaily:

“The study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that gesturing may have a unique effect on learning. ‘Gesturing can be a very beneficial tool that is completely free and easily employed in classrooms,’ said Kimberly Fenn, study co-author and assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. ‘And I think it can have long-lasting effects.’

Fenn and Ryan Duffy of MSU and Susan Cook of the University of Iowa conducted an experiment with 184 second-, third- and fourth-graders in Michigan elementary classrooms.

Half of the students were shown videos of an instructor teaching math problems using only speech. The others were shown videos of the instructor teaching the same problems using both speech and gestures.

The problem involved mathematical equivalence (i.e., 4+5+7=__+7), which is known to be critical to later algebraic learning. In the speech-only videos, the instructor simply explains the problem. In the other videos, the instructor uses two hand gestures while speaking, using different hands to refer to the two sides of the equation.

Students who learned from the gesture videos performed better on a test given immediately afterward than those who learned from the speech-only video.

Another test was given 24 hours later, and the gesture students actually showed improvement in their performance while the speech-only students did not.

While previous research has shown the benefits of gestures in a one-on-one tutoring-style environment, the new study is the first to test the role of gestures in equivalence learning in a regular classroom.

The study also is the first to show that gestures can help students transfer learning to new contexts—such as transferring the knowledge learned in an addition-based equation to a multiplication-based equation.” (Read more here.)

The ScienceDaily article goes on to note two other telling facts: that U.S. students lag behind those in many other Western countries in math and have a particularly hard time mastering equivalence problems in early grades—and that teachers in the United States tend to use gestures less than teachers in other countries. 

Why would Americans use gestures less? Teachers, do you have any ideas?

See my Time.com column, “How Hand Gestures Help You Learn,” for more on this interesting subject.

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9 Responses to “Gestures Help Your Listeners Learn Better”

  1. Raphaël says:

    Is there any study on Italian teachers and the impact of their natural hand speaking techniques ? 😀

  2. Michael Isla says:

    This is very interesting for a number of factors: 1. My daughter is in a Montessori program where her learning of concepts involves engaging the senses. As a music teacher for the last 25 years I know that when you demonstrate skills and speak less, children learn more! 2. Gestures help form a picture. So conceptually when we think of circle it is easier to “see” the circle than to think the word “circle”. When discussing difficult concepts you can “draw” a picture with your gestures and create an almost moving picture in the minds of students. 3. The more engaging the material the easier it will be to recall the information.
    Using voice tone, gestures, colors and telling a story engages students instead of droning on and having their brainwaves fall flat.

    Great article!

  3. Martín says:


    You reminded me of a joke my Dad told me when I was little.
    Man 1) Hey! Whatsa’ matter wit you? Why you so quiet?
    Man 2) I can’t talk no more. My arms is tired.

    I thought it was wonderfully funny then, because I understood it. I still think it’s funny, but I wouldn’t want anybody to to take it as an insult.

    My son, a college freshman, is studying history and English. He plans to teach history at high school level. He tends to gesture extravagantly, so he will probably succeed at keep his students awake. If the school administration allows him to bring his sword to class for extra emphasis, he’ll be even happier with his ability to tell a story.

  4. Steve says:

    As an undergrad Communications major I did a research project to test the effect of what we called “affiliative gestures” which we described as gestures that do not convey a specific piece of information (like pointing, or indicating size – which we called “directional” gestures), but rather are abstract movements not directly related to the information being conveyed.

    We videotaped a speaker describing a picture consisting of a complex set of shapes (using a script), once without using any gestures and once using only affiliative gestures. We showed the videotapes to groups of college students and asked them to draw the picture described by the speaker. We then graded each picture to indicate how accurately it matched the picture described by the speaker. We also surveyed the students about heir attitudes toward the speaker.

    What we found is that the students who watched the video of the speaker using affiliative gestures drew the picture more accurately than the students who viewed the video without affiliative gestures and they also had a more positive view of the speaker (felt the speaker was more friendly, intelligent, etc).

    We didn’t have an opportunity to do further research, but in reviewing everything, we felt that what was happening was that the affiliative gestures actually helped the speaker encode the information (improving the speaker’s nonverbals), rather than being specifically related to how gestures directly helped the students decode the information conveyed.

  5. I’m thrilled to see a post on this topic. I’m a veteran teacher who has been an Instructional Mentor to new teachers for many years. I read Cook’s early work on gesturing and am happy to see more research in this area. I’ve advised many new teachers to use gestures and to teach their students to do so as well. As I’m sure you’re well aware, gesturing has been studied in public speaking and certain gestures are associated with speakers being seen as more persuasive, more credible, etc.

    I recently worked with a very talented young Spanish teacher who taught her 7th graders (most of whom had no prior exposure to the language) in an immersion style classroom. She spoke no English in class, but pointed at objects and used gestures to demonstrate what she wanted students to do. As I watched her students successfully pick up the language over the course of a few months, I couldn’t help but wonder if the gestures were indeed responsible for a portion of their progress. The alternative would have been for her to speak in Spanish and then translate into English, providing two auditory inputs. In her immersion class, students experienced one auditory input, and one visual input, long seen as a superior combination for learning.

  6. bryan says:

    annie, you mentioned research on one on one teaching using gestures, do you happen to recall the name of the paper(s) and their author(s)? I am a math tutor and am always looking for ways to improve. thanks!

  7. I used to teach at 2 different tech schools for many years. The first was CEI and second ITT-Tech. I found that to make things more interesting and to keep the students attention gestures helped indeed. Not just gestures but vocal inflections, humor, moving around the classroom, and even mouth noises. Stopping to ask a student a question was also a good one. Sometimes a gesture can convey enthusiasm or excitement which I think can help sell the material and win over the students mental conception of the topics.

  8. Really nice, thank you for the information. Greetings from Germany.

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