How hand movements will get you through organic chemistry

Researcher looks at gesture in communication and learning

John Brogan, Staff Reporter

Sometimes, a simple hand movement can say more than words.

Case Western Reserve University cognitive science Professor Fey Parrill has devoted his research work to how gestures like facial expressions and hand movements enhance human communication. She specifically focuses on how people can use gesture as a tool for teaching and learning.

“Gestures provide a window into how people are thinking,” said Parrill, who is currently working on 15 different projects in gesture communication. “We can use it to better understand how we communicate.”

Up until recently, gesture got very little attention from cognitive scientists. However, it has gained popularity recently, with researchers like Parrill beginning to recognize its importance.

One of her current projects looks into how gesture can help students understand and visualize complicated mental images, such as the complex structures of organic molecules. When students have to mentally rotate these images, simulating the same motion with their fingers can help guide them. Parrill showed that using gesture in this way helped to improve students understanding of the concept.

“We think that it is easier because it is more schematic,” said Parrill. “It makes it simpler for the student.”

Parrill says that these “handy” techniques for abstract ideas can be used as learning tools for students managing heavy cognitive loads as they go through school. She believes that these tools will become more salient as the scientific community keeps expanding its understanding of the natural world.

Consider the 2015 MCAT revision, which asks students to absorb even more information. Compared to the current MCAT exam, the revised version will include 86 more questions, an additional section and is estimated to take two hours longer to finish.

The continually rising expectations of students to retain such massive amounts of information inspires Parrill to challenge, morph and change her teaching style to find the best ways to engage and teach her CWRU students.

Parrill’s gesture-focused research is a subset of her main interest, which is human communication. Her interest in gesture began as an undergraduate while she was studying linguistics.

Parrill works in collaboration with researchers at the University of Chicago, a major research hub in gesture and communication, and the school where Parrill got her doctorate in psychology and linguistics.