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Gesturing Deepens Kids’ Grasp of Math Problems

Gesturing Deepens Kids' Grasp of Math ProblemsChildren who gesture with their hands during a math lesson gain a better understanding of the problems being taught, according to a new study by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology.

“We found that acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning,” explained the study’s lead author, Miriam A. Novack, a Ph.D. student in psychology.

During the study, published in Psychological Science, third-grade children were taught a strategy for solving one type of mathematical equivalence problem, for example, 4 + 2 + 6 = ____ + 6. The researchers then tested the students on similar math problems to determine how well they understood the overall principle.

The researchers randomly assigned each of the 90 children to a particular group that focused on one type of physical interaction to learn the material.

In one group, for example, children placed magnetic number tiles in the proper place in the formula. For example, for the problem 4 + 2 + 6 = ___ + 6, they picked up the 4 and 2 and placed them on a magnetic whiteboard.

Another group mimed that action without actually touching the tiles, and a third group was taught to use abstract gestures with their hands to solve the math problems. In the gesture group, students were taught to produce a V-point gesture with their fingers under two of the numbers, metaphorically grouping them, followed by pointing a finger at the blank in the equation.

The children were tested before and after they solved each problem, including problems that required them to generalize beyond what they had learned in grouping the numbers. In other words, they were given another problem similar to the first problem, but that had different numbers on both sides of the equation.

Children in all three groups learned the problems they had been taught during the lesson. However, only children who gestured during the lesson were successful in generalizing on the next problem.

“Abstract gesture was most effective in encouraging learners to generalize the knowledge they had gained during instruction, action least effective, and concrete gesture somewhere in between,” said senior author Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

“Our findings provide the first evidence that gesture not only supports learning a task at hand but, more importantly, leads to generalization beyond the task. Children appear to learn underlying principles from their actions only insofar as those actions can be interpreted symbolically.”

Source:  University of Chicago

Gesturing Deepens Kids’ Grasp of Math Problems

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Gesturing Deepens Kids’ Grasp of Math Problems. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Mar 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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