Your Students Hate Math? Try Gestures

Gestures and hand motions can help engage and enhance students learning and understanding of mathematics, suggest researchers from China, Iran and Australia.

Asian Scientist (Jun. 01, 2022)–Learning in school can be difficult, especially for primary school kids. And when it comes to learning abstract subjects such as mathematics, it could be an overwhelming experience. Seeing strange symbols, Greek letters and understanding mathematical equations can give the impression that mathematics is unapproachable and hard to learn, leading to lower engagement in the subject. If not tackled at an early age, this could contribute to a reduction in mathematical literacy among primary school children. This has already been the case in some countries such as Australia, where according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings for mathematics, Australian children are behind in mathematical literacy compared to countries like South Korea, Singapore and the United Kingdom. The report also shows a downward trend in numeracy among Australian children from 2003 to 2018.

However, a team of researchers from China, Iran and Australia have suggested a method of enhancing the learning and understanding of basic math concepts using hand motions and gestures. Published in Integrative Psychology and Behavioural Science, the paper takes an initial dive into some psychological concepts and previous behavioral studies that have looked at using hand motions and gestures to enhance higher order cognitive engagement for effective learning. Based on that understanding, the study proposes a method of transferring and translating these behavioural concepts and findings to teaching primary school children basic mathematical concepts such as shapes, volume, and quantity.

Learning mathematics is akin to learning a new language, says Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, co-author of the study from the University of South Australia. Marmolejo-Ramos is a research fellow at the Center for Change and Complexity in Learning (C3L) at the University of South Australia. Speaking to Asian Scientist, he details this further.

Language, as Marmolejo-Ramos describes it, is made of three elements. There is verbal communication – using words to describe and communicate something. Then there is paralanguage – using vocal tone and pitch to convey emotions and provide more nuanced meaning to speech. Finally, there is kinesics which is facial expressions, body movements and gestures that help enhance the meaning or convey even more emotion towards verbal communication.

“You use it [the three language elements] all the time. Otherwise, the communication with any peer isn’t going to be complete,” says Marmolejo-Ramos. “The person needs to hear what you say, needs to see your gestures, your facial expressions to have a comprehensive idea of your concepts. So imagine transferring this idea of language with all these three elements for the understanding of mathematics.”

Instead of just using words or numbers to describe a concept, the paper suggests the use of more tactile learning methods to create more memory cues to strengthen and enhance the understanding of the concept. Taking shapes as an example, having students grab objects such as pencils and straws to draw or build the shape as it is being shown and explained to them could provide an additional boost to learning and understanding the concept of the new shape.

Now, learning math is more than just learning about shapes. For more advanced topics such as statistics, Marmolejo-Ramos recognizes the difficulty in using gestures and tactile learning to understand and teach it. However, he does highlight that it is not impossible. “It will require some real careful thought to design tasks. Because the person has to really understand the concept that he or she is teaching [to create engaging tasks].”

The next step for the researchers is to conduct actual studies in multiple groups of children from different countries to test this proposed method of teaching. “The big goal for the next phase is to test it in different settings,” says Marmolejo-Ramos.

Source: University of South Australia ; Photo: Pexels

The article can be found at Khatin-Zadeh et al. (2022), Gestures Enhance Executive Functions for the Understating of Mathematical Concepts.


Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist