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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Role of Verbal and Visuospatial Working Memory in Supporting Mathematics Learning With and Without Hand Gesture


Gesture during math instruction supports learning in children and adults. The mechanism by which gesture enhances learning across development is not known. One possibility is that instruction with gesture engages different cognitive abilities during learning than instruction without gesture. Our previous work showed a positive relationship between visuospatial working memory capacity and learning only when gesture was present, and a positive relationship between verbal working memory capacity and learning only when gesture was absent, suggesting that gesture may be processed using visuospatial working memory. The aim of the current experiment was to replicate and extend these prior findings with new instruction, random assignment to instructional condition, and improved measures of both learning and cognitive abilities. Participants observed video instruction in a novel mathematical system that either included speech and gesture or only speech. After instruction, participants completed a posttest to assess learning. Finally, participants completed tasks to assess verbal and visuospatial working memory capacity as well as fluid and crystallized intelligence. We found that gesture benefitted learning in adults. Contrary to previous findings, both learning with gesture and learning without gesture were supported by visuospatial working memory. These findings suggest that changing characteristics of instruction does not necessarily change the cognitive resources supporting learning in a novel math task.

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