Down, Down, Maths Performance Is...

Hand gestures to stop the slide.
May 16, 2022
A helping hand to grasp maths concepts.

Australia is heading in one direction when it comes to global maths rankings – downwards.

Once, twenty years ago we were 11th in the world according to the OECD, now Australian secondary students are languishing in 29th place out of 38 countries, according to the most recent statistics.

University of South Australia cognitive psychologist Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos might have part of the solution and it lies in giving students a helping hand.

Dr Marmolejo-Ramos and researchers from China and Iran explain that simple gestures such as hand motions are important in helping students understand mathematical concepts.

“Many people struggle with mathematics and there is a lot of anxiety around it because it is an abstract topic,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says. “You see the numbers, equations and graphs, but unless you engage human motor and sensory skills, they can be very difficult to grasp.”

To teach maths concepts, it is important to bring together language, speech intonation, facial expressions and hand gestures, particularly the latter, Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.

“Using your hands to create triangular, spherical, circular shapes and straight lines, reflecting the formulas you are trying to explain, is vital. It helps our brain better understand the concepts and commit them to memory.”

Gestures are body movements that are learnt from infancy, usually before speech, so they are ingrained in humans as a way of processing and acquiring new knowledge.

Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says hand gestures are more relevant in teaching mathematics than other subjects because they engage our sensorimotor skills to help students interpret numbers more effectively.

The shift from face-to-face teaching towards online learning in the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging for maths students.

“When the only input you have is from a screen and a set of headphones, it is more difficult to use tools and gestures on screen. It’s not impossible, however, and if online learning is going to become more widespread, then hand gestures should be incorporated into the online teaching.

“People struggle with mathematics for several reasons. It’s progressively demanding but if you grasp the basics, the curve is not as steep.”

The paper ‘Gestures Enhance Executive Functions for the Understanding of Mathematical Concepts’ is published in the Integrative Psychological and Behavioural Science journal. It is authored by Omid Khatin-Zadeh from the University of Electronic Science and Technology, China; Dr Zahra Eskandari from the Chabahar Maritime University, Iran; and Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos from the University of South Australia.

The most recent assessment, PISA in 2019 show that Australia’s performance in maths has been declining since 2003. On average, Australian maths students are 14 months behind than where they were 20 years ago, with 46% of 15-year-olds failing to meet the national standard of proficiency in mathematics.