Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

For example, two experiments of children in late third and early fourth grade, who made mistakes in solving math problems, have found that children told to move their hands when explaining how they’d solve a problem were four times as likely to manually express correct new ways to solve problems as children given no instructions. Even though they didn’t give the right answer, their gestures revealed an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas, and the second experiment showed that gesturing set them up to benefit from subsequent instruction.

And in a demonstration of improved memory, an earlier study had participants watch someone narrating three cartoons. Sometimes the narrator used hand gestures and at other times they did not. The participants were then asked to recall the story. The study found that when the narrator used gestures as well as speech the participants were more likely to accurately remember what actually happened in the story rather than change it in some way.

In another study, in which 40 children and 36 adults were asked to remember a list of letters (adults) or words (children) while explaining how they solved a math problem, both groups remembered significantly more items when they gestured during their math explanations than when they did not gesture.

It’s thought that gesturing helps memory and understanding by lightening the load on working memory while you’re thinking of what to say. Gestures use up visuospatial working memory rather than verbal memory, so essentially what you’re doing is moving part of the information in one limited working memory space into another working memory space (and brain region).

Gesturing begins at an early age, first with pointing and then with more complex gestures. It is interesting to note that several advances in cognitive abilities are displayed first in gesture before later being expressed in speech. Moreover, the early use of gesture is associated with later verbal skill.

For example, research from Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues has found that toddlers (14 months), studied during an hour and a half of play with their parents, used gestures more if they were from better-educated families, and this correlated with significantly greater vocabulary at 4 ½. On average, toddlers from well-educated families used gestures to convey 24 different meanings, while those from less-educated families used gestures to convey only 13. Better-educated parents also used more gestures when interacting with their children.

Another interesting study by the same researchers showed that the number of different meanings conveyed in gesture at 18 months predicted vocabulary at 42 months, while the number of gesture+speech combinations, particularly those conveying sentence-like ideas, predicted sentence complexity.

Some months ago, I read an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about parents communicating with their pre-verbal infants using sign language. I was greatly taken with this idea. Though it sounds, at first blush, to be part of the whole flashcards-for-babies movement, it is something quite different (I do think you need to be very judicious in the ‘hothousing’ of children; there’s more to making a person than stuffing them with knowledge like a foie gras goose). The development of verbal skills requires physical development and control that is beyond babies, but we shouldn’t assume their inability to articulate words means they don’t have the mental capacity for thought.

Nor is there any evidence that teaching them simple signs delays or impedes their verbal development. Indeed, it may help it. It may also help their social development. There’s a lot of frustration in not being able to communicate — surely eliminating, or at least reducing, that frustration is going to have positive effects.

Now this is speculation. At this point we only have anecdotal reports, no research. But we can point to the positive effects of bilingualism to tell us learning two languages is beneficial rather than a hindrance (although children growing up in a truly bilingual household may be a few weeks later in starting to speak), and we know that children’s language skills improve the more time parents spend (positively) interacting with them, and, as we have just discussed, early skill with gestures is associated with better verbal skills later on.

Caregivers of young children who are interested in this can go to: https://www.babysignlanguage.com/

More about motor memory

I don’t often talk about motor or skill memory — that is, the memory we use when we type or drive a car or play the piano. It’s one of the more mysterious domains of memory. We all know, of course, that this is a particularly durable kind of memory. It’s like riding a bicycle, we say — meaning that it’s something we’re not likely to have forgotten, something that will come back to us very readily, even if it’s been a very long time since we last used the skill.

For several decades there’s been argument over where motor memory is created. Now at last the dispute has apparently been settled, in favor of both contenders. What we needed to clarify the evidence was to realize that short-term motor memory is a quite different animal from long-term motor memory, and the two are created in different places.

The differences between short- and long-term motor memory have important implications, so let’s take a look at them.

First of all, it appears that short-term motor memory is created in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellar cortex, while long-term motor memory is transferred to the vestibular nucleus (axons from the Purkinje cells extend from the cerebellum to the vestibular nucleus in the medulla oblongata.

A similar process occurs of course in other types of memory. Most memory (for experiences, for information) is created in the hippocampus, and later passed on to regions in the cerebral cortex for long-term storage. However, that process of consolidation and transfer takes weeks. Motor memory moves from short-term to long-term much more quickly — within as little as a few hours, in some cases, or a few days at most.

There’s another important way in which motor memory differs from ‘ordinary’ memory. Again, it’s not qualitatively different, but an extension of the normal process. We don’t usually remember everything. Long-term memory is more a memory of gist than precision. Details are lost; what we remember for the most part are the broad strokes on the canvas. Similarly (though rather more markedly perhaps), short-term motor memory is quickly lost, passing on only the rough shape of the process to long-term memory.

For example, in the mouse experiments that demonstrated all this, the mice were taught to follow the movement of an object by moving their eyes in a particular way. With practice they got better at this particular eye movement, and if they practiced the task on a daily basis for several days, they were able to maintain this skill. It had been established in long-term memory.

However, this is a simple skill. When monkeys were taught a more complex skill — to follow a moving ball as its speed increases for a fifth to a tenth of a second — although they usually mastered the task quite quickly, it was also forgotten just as quickly. The researchers say such “sophisticated” motor memory is easily lost in just ten to 15 minutes.

A more human example is how a baseball batter can learn to hit a curve ball after the movement of the ball has been observed several times and memorized. It’s an advantage to pick this information up quickly, but the price seems to be that it is also forgotten quickly.

Riding a bicycle is the archetypal example of the durability of motor memory, but there’s also always a caveat: with just a little practice, we say, you’ll pick it up again. But you need that practice, and to get as skilled as you were in your heyday, you need more practice. Motor memory may be durable, but it’s only the broad outlines of the procedure that are ‘locked in’.

Of course, what constitutes the ‘broad outlines’ is clearly something that must change with practice. A concert pianist who’s been in retirement for five years and someone who learned the piano as a child are not starting off on the same foot! The ‘broad outlines’ the concert pianist has salted away must be considerably more sophisticated than those of the childhood pianist. It would be interesting to see the differences between experts and novices explored.

But in the meantime, there are two useful lessons we can take from these studies. The first is the need to brush up your skills before expecting them to be at their best (the researchers suggest that even professional musicians, accustomed to playing every day, need to ‘remind’ themselves of their skill before a concert). The second is one connected to the speed with which short-term motor memory transfers to long-term memory.

The researchers found that the animals learned more quickly when their training was broken into shorter intervals with breaks — for example, dividing an hour-long training session into four 15-minute exercises with intervals of 30 minutes between them. For this to be true, however, the cerebellar cortex needed to be active. This implies that something happens in this part of the brain during periods of inactivity that’s important for creating long-term memory. I’m reminded here of other recent research pointing to the importance of “quiet time” for consolidating new learning.

None of this contradicts what we already know about how to learn and practice a skill, but it does add to our understanding and reinforces the idea that it’s better to practice a skill regularly in small bites, rather than in lengthy sessions (I’m not denouncing the long sessions a musician, say, puts in on a daily basis. But the recommendation would be not to practice one specific thing for too long at one go — better to move on to something else, and, repeatedly, come back to it.)

For more about how to practice, check out Learning a new skill, Spacing your learning and Acquiring expertise through deliberate practice

 

Have benefits of a growth mindset been overstated?

  • A review of growth mind-set research has found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak, and may be restricted to some groups of students.

In the education world, fixed mind-set is usually contrasted with growth mind-set. In this context, fixed mind-set refers to students holding the idea that their cognitive abilities, including their intelligence, are set at birth, and they just have to accept their limitations. With a growth mind-set, however, the student recognizes that, although it might be difficult, they can grow their abilities.

A growth mind-set has been associated with a much better approach to learning and improved academic achievement, but new research suggests that this difference has been over-stated.

A recent meta-analysis of growth mind-set research found that

  • over half the effect sizes weren't significantly different from zero (157 of 273 effect sizes),
  • a small number (16) actually found a negative association between growth mind-set and academic achievement, and
  • a little over a third (100) were significant and positive.

Overall, the study found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one important factor was age — children and teenagers showed significant effects, while adults did not. Interestingly, neither academic risk status nor socioeconomic status was a significant factor, although various studies have suggested that growth mind-set is much more important for at-risk students.

A second, smaller meta-analysis was carried out to investigate whether growth-set interventions made a significant impact on academic achievement. Such interventions are designed to increase students' belief that intelligence (or some other attribute) can be improved with effort.

The study found that

  • 37 of the 43 effect sizes (86%) were not significantly different from zero,
  • one effect size was negative, and
  • five were positive.

Age was not a factor, nor was at-risk status. However, socioeconomic status was important, in that students from low-SES households were significantly impacted by a growth mind-set intervention, while those from higher-SES households were not.

The type of intervention was important: just reading about growth mind-set didn't help; doing something more interactive, such as writing a reflection, did. The number of sessions didn't have an effect. Oddly, the way the intervention was presented made a difference, with materials presented by computer or by a person not being effective, while print materials were. Interventions administered during regular classroom activities were not effective, but interventions that occurred outside regular activities did have a significant effect.

Taken overall, the depressing conclusion is that mind-set interventions are not the revolution some have touted them as. The researchers point out that previous research (Hattie et al 1996) found that the meta-analytic average effect size for a typical educational intervention on academic performance is 0.57, and all the meta-analytic effects of mind-set interventions in this study were smaller than 0.35 (and most were null).

All this is to say, not that mind-set theory is rubbish, but that it is not as straightforward and miraculous as it first appeared. Mind-set itself is more nuanced than has been presented. For example, do we really have a definite fixed mind-set or growth mind-set? Or is it that we have different mind-sets for different spheres? Perhaps we believe that our math ability is fixed, but our musical ability is something that can be developed. That we can develop our problem-solving ability, but our intelligence is set in stone. That our 'natural talents' can be grown, but our 'innate weaknesses' cannot.

Why would low-SES and high-risk students benefit from a growth mind-set intervention, while higher-SES students did not? An obvious answer lies in the beliefs held by such students. For example, it may be that many higher-SES students are challenged by the idea of a growth mind-set, because they're invested in the idea of their own natural abilities. It is their confidence in their own abilities that enables them to do well, just as other students are undermined by their lack of confidence. Given this different starting point, it would not be in any way surprising if such students responded differently to mind-set interventions.

References

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617739704

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99–136.

 

Russian Alphabet Test: set 2

This game uses mnemonic images from my book Easy Russian Alphabet to help you associate Russian letters with their English counterparts. The images are chosen to cue you to the sounds of the letters, something that is particularly important for the vowels (of which there are noticeably more in the Russian alphabet).

The task is to drag each Russian letter to its matching image/English letter.

This is the second of two tests.

Test 1

If you want to learn the letters, check out the training sets, covering 32 of the 33 letters.

Training set 1            Training set 2               Training set 3              Training set 4


 

Russian Alphabet Test: set 1

This game uses mnemonic images from my book Easy Russian Alphabet to help you associate Russian letters with their English counterparts. The images are chosen to cue you to the sounds of the letters, something that is particularly important for the vowels (of which there are noticeably more in the Russian alphabet).

The task is to drag each Russian letter to its matching image/English letter.

This is the first of two tests.

Test 2

If you want to learn the letters, check out the training sets, covering 32 of the 33 letters.

Training set 1            Training set 2               Training set 3              Training set 4


 

Russian alphabet training: set 4

This game uses mnemonic images from my book Easy Russian Alphabet to help you associate Russian letters with their English counterparts. The images are chosen to cue you to the sounds of the letters, something that is particularly important for the vowels (of which there are noticeably more in the Russian alphabet).

The task is to drag each Russian letter to its matching image/English letter. You'll find you need to click the letter onto the image to make it stick. As this is a training game, the letters won't stick where they're not correct. There are four training sets, covering 32 of the 33 letters.

Training set 1            Training set 2               Training set 3

There are also test sets, where you can challenge yourself.  Test 1          Test 2

 

 

Russian alphabet training: set 3

This game uses mnemonic images from my book Easy Russian Alphabet to help you associate Russian letters with their English counterparts. The images are chosen to cue you to the sounds of the letters, something that is particularly important for the vowels (of which there are noticeably more in the Russian alphabet).

The task is to drag each Russian letter to its matching image/English letter. You'll find you need to click the letter onto the image to make it stick. As this is a training game, the letters won't stick where they're not correct. There are four training sets, covering 32 of the 33 letters.

Training set 1            Training set 2               Training set 4

There are also test sets, where you can challenge yourself.  Test 1          Test 2

 

 

Memory & Learning Games

Memory & Attention Games

Some games to help you hone your memory and attention skills

These games are variants of the old Concentration card game, where you spread your cards out face down, and then turn over two cards at a time, seeking matching pairs.

Memory Game: Basic

Memory Game: Simple

Memory Game: Advanced

 

Language learning games

Russian alphabet:

Drag-&-drop training games:

Set 1

Set 2

Set 3

Set 4

Drag-&-drop tests:

Set 1

Set 2

 

Mempowered Memory Game: Basic

Note that these cards are also available in physical format, which you can purchase at Printer Studio.

This game is a variant of the old Concentration card game, where you spread your cards out face down, and then turn over two cards at a time, seeking matching pairs. In the beginning, of course, that's just a matter of luck — you're just learning the cards, and there may or may not be any pairs that you happen upon. But the reason it's called Concentration, or Memory, is because your degree of success depends on your ability to remember what you've seen and where each card is. Clearly, the more cards you have, the harder the game will be.

In my games, I have constructed the images myself. In the most difficult version, each image (pair of cards) has another image in the set, that is very similar, but different. That's where the attention comes in, because you need to pay attention to, and remember, more details. But you might want to work up to that set, so I've provided two simpler games, using subsets. This is the simplest of the Memory / Concentration games.

Here are links to the others:

Memory Game: Simple

Memory Game: Advanced

 

 

 

Mempowered Memory Game: Simple

Note that these cards are also available in physical format, which you can purchase at Printer Studio.

This game is a variant of the old Concentration card game, where you spread your cards out face down, and then turn over two cards at a time, seeking matching pairs. In the beginning, of course, that's just a matter of luck — you're just learning the cards, and there may or may not be any pairs that you happen upon. But the reason it's called Concentration, or Memory, is because your degree of success depends on your ability to remember what you've seen and where each card is. Clearly, the more cards you have, the harder the game will be.

In my games, I have constructed the images myself. In the most difficult version, each image (pair of cards) has another image in the set, that is very similar, but different. That's where the attention comes in, because you need to pay attention to, and remember, more details. But you might want to work up to that set, so I've provided two simpler games, using subsets. This is not the simplest of the Memory / Concentration games, but still much easier than the most difficult.

Here are links to the others:

Memory Game: Basic

Memory Game: Advanced