Theses Doctoral

Using Gestures and Body Movements for Thinking and Learning

Zhao, Jing

Gestures have been found to be helpful to people in many cognitive and daily activities, such as speaking, counting, learning, and problem solving. However, different gestures benefit people to different degrees, and people use gestures in different ways to assist thinking and learning. From an embodied cognition perspective, gesture is seen as a simulated action. Therefore, to further understand the mechanisms of gesture’s effects on thinking will directly help us harness embodied cognition theories to guide teaching and learning. In the literature, it is widely known that gesture not only reflects thinking, but also actively promotes thinking and learning. However, the mechanisms that account for gesture’s effects on cognition remained obscure to us.
To better understand how different types of gestures benefit thinking and learning, Study 1 was conducted with 31 participants to investigate how teaching big (n=15) and small gestures (n=16) as a problem solving strategy influenced the actual gesture use and performance. The results suggested that the small gesture might possibly be a more effective gesture, because people who were taught small and used small gestures had the highest accuracy percentage on the primary task. However, using the small gesture did not significantly lower cognitive load compared to using the big gesture.
Based on these findings, Study 2 was conducted with 100 adults to further investigate how teaching different types of gestures influenced learners’ gesture use, performance, learning, and cognitive load. In this study, the participants were randomly assigned to three groups, where they were taught to solve a molecular structure problem using small (n=25), big (n=50), or no gestures (n=25). Then they were left in a quiet room to solve 15 molecule questions independently. Their answers and time spent on each question were recorded. A dual-task paradigm was used as an objective measure of cognitive load, and a NASA Questionnaire was used as a subjective measure of cognitive load. At the end, participants were asked to answer some transfer questions. Throughout the study, all participants’ gestures and body movements were recorded by two cameras.
The findings from the two studies suggested that teaching different types of gestures had some influence on people’s gesture use, performance, learning, and cognitive load. Specifically, small gestures taught as a problem-solving strategy were adopted more easily and more effectively used than big gestures and body movements. Questions that were answered through small gestures seemed to have a slightly higher accuracy percentage, but were not necessarily related to lowered cognitive load. The study also found that when people were taught gesture as a problem solving strategy and then asked to use it, they took some time at the very beginning to try and practice, and then gradually transitioned to using no gestures. In both studies, their thinking time, gesture time, gesturing density decreased gradually, without sacrificing accuracy. These findings contributed to both embodied cognition theories and gesture literature, and also shed light on instructional design in an educational setting.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Cognitive Studies in Education
Thesis Advisors
Black, John
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 16, 2018