Gestures in Learning & Teaching


Contributors: Robb Lindgren (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Michelle Perry (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Shereen Beilstein (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and Martha Alibali (University of Wisconsin–Madison)

Gestures are a readily available, but often overlooked, resource that can serve as a powerful tool for communicating and meaning making. Gestures are hand and body movements that refer to locations, actions, or objects (Church et al., 2016), and they are a resource that both students and teachers can use in classrooms. Gestures function as an extension of the cognitive system, serving both to express and construct meaning from and in the world. Researchers in fields ranging from linguistics and cognitive science to education and developmental psychology have contributed to theories of gesture, embodiment, and multimodal learning for several decades (e.g., Arzarello et al., 2009; Crowder, 1996; Goldin-Meadow, 2011; Hostetter & Alibali, 2008; Kendon, 1997; Roth, 2001).

Teachers regularly produce gestures during classroom instruction (e.g., Flevares & Perry, 2001; Roth, 2001; Shein, 2012; Wilson et al., 2014), and these gestures take many different forms and have many different functions. Teachers use pointing gestures to guide students’ attention, they use representational gestures to depict objects, ideas, and relationships, and they use beat gestures to express emphasis and mark discourse structure. Teachers also use sets of gestures to connect ideas, for example, by indicating corresponding elements of related representations (such as an equation and a graph) (Alibali et al., 2014; Richland, 2015). Growing evidence indicates that teachers’ gestures matter for students’ learning (e.g., Alibali et al., 2013; Carlson et al., 2014).

Students also regularly produce gestures when they are solving problems (Crowder, 1996; Pier et al., 2019) or explaining their reasoning (Goldin-Meadow, 2011). These gestures can indicate how students think about and represent novel and abstract ideas (e.g., Núñez, 2008). Usually, these spontaneous gestures align with—or match—what students are saying (Goldin-Meadow, 2011). But at other, more critical times, spontaneous gestures can convey aspects of students’ thinking and reasoning that differ from or go beyond what students say (Goldin-Meadow, Alibali, Church, 1993; Singer et al., 2008). When students express different information in gesture and speech, they may be in the process of learning something new; at these pivotal moments, students tend to be highly receptive to instruction (Perry et al., 1988). In addition to studying students’ spontaneous gestures, researchers also have explored the effects of eliciting gestures during instructional activities. For example, simply telling students to gesture while solving problems (Broaders et al., 2007) or explaining scientific phenomena (Lindgren et al., 2016) has been shown to promote learning. Furthermore, asking students to produce specific gestures also leads to positive outcomes in STEM contexts (Cook et al., 2008; Goldin-Meadow et al., 2009; Mathayas et al., 2019).

Digital tools can enable new ways of examining and augmenting gestures (Chang et al., 2013). In the absence of technology, gestures are largely ephemeral, but with video and other motion-capture technologies, gestures can be recorded, reflected on, and potentially repurposed or transformed. A simple, but potentially powerful effect of these technologies is making teachers and learners more aware of the gestures they are making (e.g., Mathayas et al., 2019). Emerging technologies, from touchscreens to motion sensors, make it possible to use gestures to interact with learning content, such as a digital visualization that shows the effect of molecular interactions based on how a learner is modeling them with their hands (Wallon & Lindgren, 2017). AI and machine learning algorithms make it possible to make inferences about teacher and learner gestures (e.g., Blikstein & Worsley, 2016), which opens many possibilities for intervention.

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Syllabi and Slides

Gestures in Learning and Teaching slides by Martha W. Alibali

Video Resources

Listen to the Gestures in Learning & Teaching webinar


Basic Reading:
  • Alibali, M., Nathan, M. J. (2011). Embodiment in mathematics teaching and learning: Evidence from learners’ and teachers’ gestures. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(2), 247-286.
  • Alibali, M. W., Nathan, M. J., Wolfgram, M. S., Church, R. B., Johnson, C. V., Jacobs, S. A., & Knuth, E. J. (2014). How teachers link ideas in mathematics instruction using speech and gesture: A corpus analysis. Cognition and Instruction, 32(1), 65-100.
  • Arzarello, F., Paola, D., Robutti, O., & Sabena, C. (2009). Gestures as semiotic resources in the mathematics classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 70(2), 97–109.
  • Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. Harvard University Press.
  • McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. University of Chicago Press.
Additional Reading:
  • Goldin-Meadow, S. & Wagner, S. M. (2005). How our hands help us learn. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 234-241.
  • Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible action as utterance. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kita, S., Alibali, M. W., & Chu, M. (2017). How do gestures influence thinking and speaking? The gesture-for-conceptualization hypothesis. Psychological Review, 24, 245-266.
  • Novack, M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2015). Learning from gesture: How our hands change our minds. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 405-412.
  • Roth, W. M. (2001). Gestures: Their role in teaching and learning. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 365-392.

Learning Scientists Who Have Researched This Topic

  • Dor Abrahamson
  • Martha Alibali
  • Shereen Oca Beilstein
  • Breckie Church
  • Susan Wagner Cook
  • Virginia Flood
  • Susan Gerofksy
  • Spencer Kelly
  • Tim Koschmann
  • Christina Krause
  • Robb Lindgren
  • Matthew Lira
  • Andrew Manches
  • Mitchell Nathan
  • Ricardo Nemirovsky
  • Michelle Perry
  • Nathalie Sinclair
  • Hortensia Soto
  • Mike Stieff
  • Candace Walkington
  • Janet Walkoe
  • Caro William-Pierce
  • Caroline Yoon
References Cited:
  • Alibali, M. W., Nathan, M. J., Wolfgram, M. S., Church, R. B., Jacobs, S. A., Johnson Martinez, C., & Knuth, E. J. (2014). How teachers link ideas in mathematics instruction using speech and gesture: A corpus analysis. Cognition and instruction, 32(1), 65-100.
  • Alibali, M. W., Young, A. G., Crooks, N. M., Yeo, A., Ledesma, I., Nathan, M. J., Church, R. B., & Knuth, E. J. (2013). Students learn more when their teacher has learned to gesture effectively. Gesture, 13(2), 210–233.
  • Arzarello, F., Paola, D., Robutti, O., & Sabena, C. (2009). Gestures as semiotic resources in the mathematics classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 70(2), 97–109.
  • Blikstein, P., & Worsley, M. (2016). Multimodal Learning Analytics and Education Data Mining: using computational technologies to measure complex learning tasks. Journal of Learning Analytics, 3(2), 220-238.
  • 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 Psychology: General, 136(4), 539–550.
  • Carlson, C., Jacobs, S. A., Perry, M., & Church, R. B. (2014). The effect of gestured instruction on the learning of physical causality problems. Gesture, 14(1), 26-45.
  • Chang, C. Y., Chien, Y. T., Chiang, C. Y., Lin, M. C., & Lai, H. C. (2013). Embodying gesture‐based multimedia to improve learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(1), E5-E9.
  • Church, R. B., Kelly, S. D., & Wakefield, E. (2016). Measuring gesture. In D. Matsumoto, H. C. Hwang, & M. G. Frank (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology. APA handbook of nonverbal communication (p. 499–523). American Psychological Association.
  • Congdon, E. L., Novack, M. A., Brooks, N., Hemani-Lopez, N., O’Keefe, L., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2017). Better together: Simultaneous presentation of speech and gesture in math instruction supports generalization and retention. Learning and Instruction, 50, 65-74.
  • Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition, 106, 1047-1058.
  • Crowder, E. M. (1996). Gestures at work in sense-making science talk. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 5(3), 173-208.
  • Flevares, L. M., & Perry, M. (2001). How many do you see? The use of nonspoken representations in first-grade mathematics lessons. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 330-345.
  • Goldin‐Meadow, S. (2011). Learning through gesture. Cognitive Science, 2, 595-607.
  • Goldin-Meadow, S., Alibali, M. W., & Church, R. B. (1993). Transitions in concept acquisition: using the hand to read the mind. Psychological Review, 100, 279-297.
  • Goldin-Meadow, S., Cook, S. W., & Mitchell, Z. A. (2009). Gesturing gives children new ideas about math. Psychological Science, 20(3), 267-272.
  • Hostetter, A. B., & Alibali, M. W. (2008). Visible embodiment: Gestures as simulated action. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 15(3), 495-514.
  • Kendon, A. (1997). Gesture. Annual review of anthropology, 26(1), 109-128.
  • Lindgren, R., Wallon, R. C., Brown, D. E., Mathayas, N., & Kimball, N. (2016). “Show me” what you mean: Learning and design implications of eliciting gesture in student explanations. Paper in C.-K. Looi, J. Polman, U. Cress, & P. Reimann (Eds.), “Transforming learning, empowering learners,” Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2016) (pp. 1014-1017). Singapore: National Institute of Education.
  • Mathayas, N., Brown, D. E., Wallon, R. C., & Lindgren, R. (2019). Representational gesturing as an epistemic tool for the development of mechanistic explanatory models. Science Education, 103(4), 1047-1079.
  • Núñez, R. (2008). Conceptual metaphor, human cognition, and the nature of mathematics. In R. W. Gibbs Jr. (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, (pp. 339-362). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Perry, M., Church, R. B., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1988). Transitional knowledge in the acquisition of concepts. Cognitive Development, 3, 359-400.
  • Pier, E. L., Walkington, C., Clinton, V., Boncoddo, R., Williams-Pierce, C., Alibali, M. W., & Nathan, M. J. (2019). Embodied truths: How dynamic gestures and speech contribute to mathematical proof practices. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 58, 44-57.
  • Rasmussen, C., Stephan, M., & Allen, K. (2004). Classroom mathematical practices and gesturing. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 23(3), 301-323.
  • Richland, L. E. (2015). Linking gestures: Cross-cultural variation during instructional analogies. Cognition and Instruction, 33(4), 295-321.
  • Roth, W. M. (2001). Gestures: Their role in teaching and learning. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 365-392.
  • Shein, P. P. (2012). Seeing with two eyes: A teacher’s use of gestures in questioning and revoicing to engage English language learners in the repair of mathematical errors. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 43(2), 182-222.
  • Singer, M. A., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Children learn when their teacher’s gestures and speech differ. Psychological Science, 16, 85-89.
  • Singer, M., Radinsky, J., & Goldman, S. R. (2008) The role of gesture in meaning construction, Discourse Processes, 45, 365-386.
  • Valenzeno, L., Alibali, M. W., & Klatzky, R. L. (2003). Teachers’ gestures facilitate students’ learning: A lesson in symmetry. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 187-204.
  • Wallon, R. C., & Lindgren, R. (2017). Considerations for the design of gesture-augmented learning environments. In M. J. Spector, B. B. Lockee, & M. D. Childress (Eds.), Learning, Design, and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy (pp. 1-21). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
  • Wilson, A. A., Boatright, M. D., & Landon-Hays, M. (2014). Middle school teachers’ discipline-specific use of gestures and implications for disciplinary literacy instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(2), 234-262.