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Good News for Individuals Who Gesture!

Have you ever completed a task but later you were unable to articulate what you did in order to succeed? For example, after I have completed a complicated math problem, I am typically unable to explain in words how I arrived at my answer.  When this occurs, we are said to have implicit knowledge of the task rather than explicit knowledge of the task. In other words, the knowledge that is evident in our behavior but it is unavailable through speech.  When I am unable to explain or articulate something, I often find myself gesturing or using my hands. In fact, I think of myself as a frequent gesturer. Many learners, myself included, demonstrate spontaneous gestures when trying to describe a task or knowledge that they cannot quite articulate. These gestures that we use while speaking are a way of revealing our implicit knowledge. Because gesturing behavior helps us reveal knowledge we cannot articulate, could gesturing enhance our learning? New research on gesturing has shown that gesturing can give us insight to the information that we cannot express through speech. But what happens when we are forced to gesture? Can forced gesturing reveal our implicit knowledge or perhaps, prepare us for learning?

A study by Broaders, Cook, Mitchell, and Goldin-Meadow in 2007 addressed the concept of forced gesturing by making elementary school children gesture while explaining their answers to math problems that they had never learned before.  In the first experiment of the study, the researchers’ goal was to simply determine whether forcing the participants to gesture would help them express any implicit knowledge. This was accomplished by asking children to complete two sets of six mathematical equivalence problems (for example: 6 + 3 + 7 = ___ + 7). In the first set, experimenters gave the children no instruction about gesturing (this was used as a baseline) and in the second set, some children were instructed to move their hands while describing how they solved a problem, some children were instructed not to move their hands, and others were given no instructions once again. Overall, researchers found that forcing children to use hand gestures when describing how they solved math problems helped them express, in gesture, many correct strategies that were previously unexpressed. By being told to gesture, children were able to generate the correct strategies to solve the math problems all by themselves.

The second experiment of the study digs a little deeper.  In the second part of the experiment, researchers investigated if forced gesturing could also increase the likelihood of a child benefiting from teacher instruction. In order to test this, the same variables and control  were used as in the first experiment with an additional couple of factors. In addition to the baseline and original manipulation, the children were given a lesson of how to solve the new type of math problem (the children do nothing but watch and listen during this step) and then finally, the children were given a test which simply involved the children solving 6 more of the same type of math problems. The second portion of this study proved to have some additional interesting results! Researchers found that although children in both condition groups were instructed to place some attention to the children’s hands when they described their problem solving (either to move them or keep them still), only the children who were told to make gestures or move their hands added new strategies to their list of problem solving techniques and actually profited from the math lesson.

Broaders et al. show in this study that not only can the encouragement of gesturing help express our implicit knowledge, but also it helps us become more prepared for learning and it increases our receptibility of instruction. So, what’s the bid deal? Gesturing could start to play a bigger role in the classroom. Telling a student to gesture brings out, in gesture, the knowledge that the student does not yet know how to verbalize or articulate. Although this study does not claim that being told to gesture creates implicit knowledge, the study does show how being told to gesture can reveal previously unexpressed implicit knowledge that increases the likelihood of learning. As an avid gesturer, this is good news for me. Perhaps in the future, gesturing in the classroom will be encouraged and learners everywhere will be more capable of bringing out their implicit knowledge!


Broaders, S. C., Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2007). Making children gesture brings out implicit knowledge and leads to learning.Journal of Experimental Psychology136, 539-550.

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  1. May 19th, 2013 at 17:28 | #1

    I really enjoyed how you tied the gesturing concept back into learning in the classroom. Through my own learning, I was not encouraged to gesture, sometimes even discouraged from doing so. This would be a very interesting concept to try to implement in school systems to see if it would truly improve students’ learning.

  2. November 25th, 2013 at 15:51 | #2

    I completely understand the idea of using gestures for personal comprehension and ease of communication. This is something I know I do for my own benefit all the time. However, I am curious to see in further study of gesturing whether watcher/listener comprehension is adversely affected by minimalist to extreme gestures. I know that classes with a professor who uses exaggerated gestures can be worse than others. Perhaps that’s just an individual difference or a confounding variable depending on my mood for the day!

  3. December 2nd, 2013 at 23:33 | #3

    This is an extremely interesting study to me because I often find myself oddly gesturing when I am trying to remember something during a test; however, many of the tests in which I carry out these gestures only test my explicit knowledge rather than my implicit knowledge. I am curious if a study has been conducted that examines gesturing and its impact on the recollection of explicit knowledge. It would also be interesting to look at whether or not gesturing during instruction affects later recall on tests. It would make sense that gesturing during initial knowledge would create additional memory traces, which could perhaps help later recall. Furthermore, I agree with Abigail’s suggestion to look at if and how the instructor’s gestures affect learning. I find that in class I am often distracted if the professor makes large, wild gestures.

  4. March 17th, 2014 at 10:01 | #4

    I think this is a very interesting phenomenon because there would not seem to be an apparent connection between gesturing and learning. This study clearly shows the connection between learning and gesturing; however, I am left wondering exactly how the phenomenon occurs. Perhaps it occurs through a type of pavlovian association — implicit learning gets tied to the external motions, thereby allowing you to retrieve the information whenever you make the motions. However, this does not fit into the study, because the participants were not asked to gesture during the study and learning phase of the experiment. Thus, I wonder about the reason for such a connection.

    Furthermore, I wonder if this could have anything to do with the “work face.” Whenever I am working, I always end up pursing my lips — a weird habit that my friends find highly entertaining. However, all of my friends have their own “work face.” Some look stressed, some bite their lips, some stick out their tongue — everyone seems to make some sort of face when he or she is concentrating. I wonder if making such a distinctive face every time you work increases your ability to remember and concentrate.

  5. March 19th, 2014 at 16:38 | #5

    I really connected to the findings of this study and your explanation of this phenomenon because I have found myself gesturing quite often while taking physics this year. I try to spatially imagine how particles are moving through space and how different forces change and redirect its motion, which results in me twisting and turning my hands. My professor encourages us to do this and in particular to utilize the “right hand rule” that involves using a gesture with your hand to find the cross product of two vectors. For now this process is controlled because the task is relatively new and difficult for me, but I hope that with a lot of practice, this process will be automatized. Similar to the findings of this study, the gestures help me express implicit knowledge that I have yet learned to confidently articulate. Similar to what Daniel said, I believe that gesturing would result in more and stronger memory traces. However, once the memory traces are made, I wondering whether the technique and skill that the gesture facilitated will become so automatic that the gesture is no longer needed. Once a person is able to articulate the technique or task after sufficient practice, I think the person doesn’t have to put energy in to perform the gesture. In class, we learned about Logan’s Instance Theory, which stated that when there are enough memory traces for a task from past experiences, we skip the algorithm used to calculate the answer and instead just search our memory for the answer. For simple math problems like the children did in the study, I would expect that they would no longer need the gesture after practice. However, for more complicated tasks like physic homework sets, I believe that I will have to continue to make controlled gestures to aid in visualizing problems because of the complexity of the subject.

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