# Harnessing Gesture and Action to Improve Pre-Algebra Instruction

**Effective Years:** 2016-2022

Students who succeed in algebra are more likely to be successful in advanced STEM courses. Students who fail algebra are more likely to drop out of high school. A team of researchers at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago will conduct a set of experimental studies to explore how gesture and use of manipulatives may improve understanding of mathematical equivalence. a fundamental, pre-algebraic building block. Young children often have misconceptions about this concept??they can correctly solve problems like 3+4+5=___ , but when faced with a problem like 3+4+5=___+5, they add all of the numbers together, or just add the numbers to the left of the equal sign. This misconception often leads to difficulties with algebra. The researchers will test how two forms of movement that students and teachers already use in a classroom setting can be used to improve learning outcomes: actions, performed directly on objects, and gestures, movements of the hands that can communicate ideas along with speech. Previous work shows that both action and gesture have powerful effects on how children think and learn. Through a series of studies, the research team will explore (1) how children learn, generalize, and retain an understanding of mathematical equivalence after learning through action or gesture, (2) how spoken instruction can be used with action and gesture to affect learning outcomes, and (3) how action and gesture can be combined in instruction to bolster learning. To motivate future work and refine educational practices, behavioral methods and neuroimaging techniques will be used to understand how action and gesture produce their effects. By considering how the brain changes over the course of learning, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of the aspects of gesture and action that should be emphasized in the creation of teaching tools. The project is funded by the EHR Core Research program, which supports fundamental research that advances the research literature on STEM learning.

The overarching goal of the research is to investigate how action and gesture instruction affect children?s ability to learn, generalize, and retain information relevant to developing the pre-algebraic concept of mathematical equivalence. Action and gesture are both powerful tools that can shape cognition. However, these tools may promote learning in different ways and thus may be beneficial at different stages of the learning process. The supported projects explore this hypothesis, and have 3 specific goals: (1) To determine how action and gesture can best be used not only to promote initial learning of mathematical equivalence, but also to promote generalization and retention of the newly learned concept. The effects of action and gesture training will be considered on both a behavioral and neural level. Behavioral data will indicate general outcomes; neuroimaging methods will be used to differentiate between various mechanisms that could underlie the behavioral effects. Combining these methods will lead to the development of evidence-based educational techniques that target learning through action and gesture. (2) To determine how action and gesture interact with spoken instruction to promote learning, generalization, and retention of mathematical equivalence. Spoken instruction is the most common instructional method used by teachers, and prior work suggests that gesture is more tightly integrated with speech than action. Understanding how speech interacts with gesture and action to promote learning thus has the potential to increase the utility of each of these teaching tools. (3) To determine how gesture and action can be combined to promote learning, generalization and retention of mathematical equivalence. Action may be a useful way to introduce a concept; gesture may encourage children to generalize the concept. This issue takes on importance because of the frequency with which actions on manipulatives are used in classrooms; although good at introducing learners to a concept, manipulatives may have an important downside: They may inhibit generalization to new problems. These goals will be addressed through research with 9-10 year old children in a series of between-group studies.