The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

The Hands Have It

1 Comment


Image courtesy of Heather Rusiewicz via

By Dr. Heather Rusiewicz, Assistant Professor of Speech-Language Pathology, Duquesne University

We all do it.  We move in the classroom, especially with our arms and hands.

We ask our students to move their hands too, but typically just by raising them.  Have you ever thought in a systematic way about the way that you move your hands during instruction?  What about incorporating movement by your students?  Gestures are a no-cost enhancement to instruction according to a growing literature base on the effect of gestures on learning.  Indeed, I certainly can attest to the benefit of gestures during lectures on new material or during that third hour of a three hour and fifteen minute course to capture attention.

Gesture in the classroom is natural and pervasive.  The impact of gestures, seamless and extensive during instruction as they may be, upon the learning process in higher education settings is unknown.   Yet, data suggests that there is a nearly ubiquitous, robust, beneficial effect of gesture in the instruction of school-age children, primarily in the area of mathematics (e.g., Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006) and bilingual education (Church, Ayman-Nolley, & Mahootian, 2004). Likewise, it is certainly well established that gestures can be beneficial in learning of communication skills for individuals with language impairments, such as aphasia (see Rose, Raymer, Lanyon, & Attard, 2013 for a review).  Indirect associations of these bodies of work along with anecdotal accounts of the effect of using gesture during lecture and other instructional activities may lend insight to pedagogical approaches used with young adult learners. It is also important to consider why gestures may be effective in strengthening the learning process.

My hands-my classroom

I think a lot about gestures from a research and clinical standpoint.  I admit, I am not as systematic in my hand movements when I teach.  However, I can say with certainty that I produce more gestures to engage students when I see glassy eyes in the audience. I also know that I have integrated the hands when teaching more than a few concepts.  For instance, I have students pair up and use their hands when learning how specific parts of the speech mechanism coordinate to produce sounds.  Students are also instructed to “tap” out the rhythm of speech when learning to distinguish stressed and unstressed syllables in words and utterances.  Indeed, my gestures heighten engagement and provide information to the students.  Likewise, students’ hand movements increase their attention in the immediate learning environment and I anecdotally see improvement in retention of these concepts after initiating gestures in these learning activities compared to when the content was delivered without students moving their own hands.

Why gestures? 

In short, gestures can convey information when presented to an individual and can also embody information when produced by an individual.  As Goldin-Meadow (2003) stated, gesture and speech are “complementary components of a single integrated system, with each modality best suited to expressing its own set of meanings” (p. 184). She continues by stating, “gesture itself can allow for the construction of two different types of representations—visuo-spatial representations and motor representations” (p. 185).  It is also the case that students’ production of gesture likely has a stronger effect on learning and retention than merely observing gestures, according to the theoretical framework of embodiment. Embodiment refers to the thought that cognitive and learning processes are strongly integrated with the way in which an individual moves and interacts with the world.  Embodiment of thoughts and cognition provides “learners an alternative, embodied way of representing new ideas” (Cook, Mitchell, & Goldin-Meadow, 2008, p. 1047).  Embodiment of coding new information may be especially useful in the retention of knowledge (Cook et al., 2008).  The complex interaction of action and cognition remains a topic of extensive investigation (see Goldin-Meadow & Beilock , 2011 for a review) and broad theoretical postulation (e.g., Xu & Fe, 2014).

So, we all should start waving hands around during class? 

Well, maybe.  There is much to learn about the effect of different types of gestures on learning outcomes in higher education.  Though it does seem certain that gestures, whether pointing gestures, gestures that hold meaning (e.g., demonstrating something is large by holding two hands out wide), or even beating our hands in time with the rhythm of speech will heighten attention as well as provide information.  Memory and learning may be further enhanced by encouraging our students to gesture during their explanations of novel concepts.  Ultimately, gesturing, by the educator and student, during teaching is natural and beneficial.  Now—get moving!


Church, R. B., Ayman-Nolley, S., & Mahootian, S. (2004). The role of gesture in bilingual education: Does gesture enhance learning?. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7(4), 303-319.

Cook, S. W., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2006). The role of gesture in learning: Do children use their hands to change their minds?. Journal of Cognition and Development, 7(2), 211-232.

Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition, 106(2), 1047-1058.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. Harvard University    Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., & Beilock, S. L. (2010). Action’s influence on thought: The case of gesture. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 664-674.

Rose, M. L., Raymer, A. M., Lanyon, L. E., & Attard, M. C. (2013). A systematic review of gesture treatments for post-stroke aphasia. Aphasiology27(9), 1090-1127

Xu, X., & Ke, F. (2014). From psychomotor to ‘motorpsycho’: learning through gestures with body sensory technologies. Educational Technology Research and Development, 1-31.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

One thought on “The Hands Have It

  1. This makes so much sense — given what we know about the advantage of using various modalities for learning. Your post helps me see concrete ways for kinesthetic embodiment in learning — something that can be hard to integrate in many disciplines. I’m also thinking about the book, Brain Rules, and the contention that visual trumps all other senses. So — if an instructor’s gestures don’t align with what they want to communicate in their words, might the gestures “over power” the verbal message? E.g., instructor says she is very enthusiastic about something, but uses very small, close-to-body gestures. What primary message is conveyed?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s