George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

Tips for Using Hand Gestures to Support Learning

Understanding how gesturing aids communication gives teachers another tool to ensure that learning really sticks in students’ minds.

October 13, 2022
High school math teacher gestures with his hands while lecturing
Igor Alecsander / iStock

Moments before a fellow teacher was about to speak to a gymnasium full of ninth graders, I bet her a bagel sandwich that she couldn’t talk without moving her hands. Fists stuffed into her khaki pockets, she stammered into the microphone for a few seconds, then shot exasperated eye-darts in my direction as she removed her hands and started gesturing. Instantly, her oral fluency returned.

Gesturing Benefits Speakers

As many teachers and students have discovered on their own, manual (hand and arm movement) gesturing supports oral message formation. That’s why we naturally gesticulate when talking on the phone, even though the listener can’t see us. Words are easier to access; sentences emerge faster.

In fact, gesturing spontaneously escalates when communication challenges intensify. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Sharon Begley wrote, “The greater the cognitive effort required for speech, the more we gesture.” Begley also notes that bilingual students gesticulate more when conversing in their nondominant language, an example of “embodied cognition” where the body and mind coordinate to offload mental strain to our hands.

In a 2001 study, Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues taxed the working memory of a random sample of students by directing them to talk without moving their hands. The comparison group of participants was allowed to gesture while explaining how to solve a math problem. According to the researchers, the second group was able to recall more of a previously memorized series of letters.

Research by Jana M. Iverson and Goldin-Meadow that examined the effects of gestures and learning showed that participants who sat on their hands were unable to orally construct a narrative about a cartoon with as much depth and fluency as those students who were encouraged to gesticulate. These results suggest that gesturing frees cognitive resources.

Gestures Have an Effect on the Listener

In most contexts, the axiom that gesturing distracts listeners is false. Whether executing the hand-on-heart pledge, the Angela Merkel “diamond,” or dozens of other possible hand movements, the most popular TED conference speakers used an average of 465 gestures, according to Science of People. That’s almost double the number of gestures made by the least popular TED presenters.

When teachers gesticulate, learners pay more attention. “Hand gestures alert the auditory cortex that meaningful communication is coming,” according to Spencer Kelly, a hand gesture researcher. A 2011 meta-study determined that students understand and remember more of what teachers say when hand movement accompanies words, with representational gestures leading to deeper comprehension, such as the “beat gestures” used to great effect by President John F. Kennedy.

When Should Students Use Gestures?

When students act out topics with their hands at the moment of encoding (initial learning), they’re more likely to retrieve the information later. Watching a peer manually express how a bill becomes a law or perform the four steps of photosynthesis positively affects student recall weeks later—similar to the benefits of observing a teacher’s gesticulations.

Gesturing supports information retrieval, such as uncommon vocabulary. Prompted to try gesturing difficult words when they are on the tip of their tongues, learners outperform those who did not. Likewise, gesturing while reproducing sentences in a foreign language helps students remember and maintain what they’ve learned. Thus, gesturing while both encoding and recalling supports learning.

However, not all gestures are equal. Deliberate, enacted movement is more memorable than spontaneous gesturing. Furthermore, when learners manually represent a graph or other types of visual information, the positive impact of gestures on memory is reduced. One hypothesis for this discovery is that “gesturing encourages speakers to generate their own internal visual representations of events, decreasing the usefulness of the actual visual representation as a recall cue.” Such redundancy is the strategic equivalent of wearing two raincoats.

Assess Cognition by Observing Student Gestures

Annie Murphy Paul notes in her book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain that children frequently convey “mixed messages” when simultaneously gesturing and explaining a concept. Detecting these moments of cognitive inconsistency can help teachers identify the extent to which a student has internalized knowledge and skills and when to time instructional interventions.

If the learners’ words and gestures align, the concept has been mastered. If both gestures and words are incorrect, the student has a ways to go. A mismatch between gestures and spoken words signals that the student is on the verge of understanding the concept and is receptive to instruction.

For example, if a student shrugs with open palms (the universal signal for “I don’t know”) and answers correctly that -6 subtracted from -8 equals -2, this is a good opportunity for the teacher to say, “Walk through how you arrived at this correct answer,” before asking about a similar mathematical problem in order to help the learner solidify her understanding.

Remember These Key Takeaways

Recent scholarship on manual gestures suggests that you employ the following strategies:

  1. Practice gestures (e.g., showing fingers while identifying the order of planets) before you present concepts in class.
  2. Direct students to pay attention to your hands when you explain something new.
  3. Encourage learners to gesture actively during activities like turn and talk, when students converse about a topic with a partner.
  4. Notice when students struggle for the right words, and say, “How about moving your hands to help find the words?”
  5. Offer learners this study tip: When recalling information, re-create the gestures that you or the instructor used when the topic was introduced.
  6. Ask students to use deictic gestures—such as pointing to elements in an anatomy diagram, pointing at a world map, or tracing geometry figures—during the encoding process.
  7. Watch students’ hands as the students talk to assess their understanding, and time your interventions.

During your next class, trust your hands to conduct the complex orchestration of teaching and learning. They’ll know what to do.

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