How Do Instructional Gestures Support Students' Mathematics Learning?

This research addresses the role of teachers’ communication in students’ learning in the domains of early algebra and statistics. We are investigating how teachers’ instructional gestures influence students’ learning, with a focus on what types of gestural grounding are most effective at promoting learning. The project has implications for teacher education and teacher professional development, as well as for advancing basic knowledge of the role of gesture in comprehension and learning.

Given that both algebra and statistics are fundamental to scientific and mathematical literacy, the knowledge gained will contribute to improving algebra and statistics instruction. The knowledge gained also will help us to harness the power of gesture in effective instructional communication.

Gesture plays a substantial role in comprehension in instructional settings, both for native speakers and for second language learners. Some studies have shown roughly double the learning (i.e., twice as many students demonstrating deep learning, or success on roughly twice as many posttest items) after lessons with gestures than after lessons without gestures. However, prior work has not systematically varied teachers’ gestures to identify what is most effective for student learning.

This work will provide an empirical basis for recommendations about how teachers in two very distinct communities—K-12 mathematics and higher education statistics for the social sciences—can use gestures effectively.

Our previous research has shown that teachers can intentionally alter their gestures after a brief tutorial about the importance of teachers’ gestures. Instructionally effective gestures are thus an inexpensive and potentially valuable tool that practicing teachers could add to their 'toolkit' of methods for effective communication. This research should also provide an empirical basis for recommendations about gesture and grounding for designers of video and on-line learning materials, which are becoming increasingly prevalent as methods of delivering instruction.

Finally, this work has the potential to contribute to our basic understanding of learning and instruction from an embodied perspective. We gain further understanding of the cognitive processes underlying mathematical understanding by experimentally manipulating the ways in which relations between mathematical ideas are conveyed in instruction, and exploring the consequences for learning.


Completed on July 31, 2014