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New Study Reveals Movement’s Key Role in Enhancing Learning

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Recent research has revealed significant advancements in the field of embodied cognition, emphasising its profound impact on learning and instruction. The study underscores the intricate connection between cognitive processing and physical activities, proposing that learning is deeply intertwined with bodily movements and environmental interactions. The findings were published in the journal Educational Psychology Review.

Embodied cognition, a concept that acknowledges the mutual influence of the brain, body, and environment, plays a crucial role in educational settings. The study identifies six key research avenues that demonstrate the benefits of embodied cognition: physical activity, generative learning, offloaded cognition, specialised processing, signalling, and social cognition.

Juan Cristobal Castro-Alonso, PhD, an assistant professor in educational psychology at the University of Birmingham, noted: “The study’s motivation is to provide some explanations why embodied cognition works.

“As some of these explanations go beyond the typical realms of embodied cognition, we could inspire future investigations to look in places that have not been explored yet. That’s why we also provided influential features that must be considered in future research about this important topic for learning and instruction.”

Each of these avenues provides unique insights into how different types of movements – both made and observed – can enhance learning and cognitive processing.

  1. Physical activity and cognitive enhancement. The research suggests that physical activities, ranging from complex exercises to simple gestures, can significantly improve cognitive processing and learning. The study presents evidence that both strenuous and mild physical activities have beneficial effects on brain functions and learning outcomes, with the nature and timing of the movements playing a critical role.
  2. Generative learning through movement. Generative learning, characterised by personal connections to knowledge, is effectively facilitated through physical movements like drawing, gesturing, and object manipulation. This avenue focuses on how personal and creative movements, as opposed to mere copying, can enhance the learning experience.
  3. Offloaded cognition. This concept involves distributing cognitive processing to the hands and objects in the environment, aiding working memory and learning. The study highlights how gestures and object manipulations can reduce the cognitive load, especially for tasks with higher complexity or for individuals with lower working memory capacity.
  4. Specialised processor for human movement. Observing human movements activates specific neural processes in the brain, different from those used for processing auditory or visuospatial information. This specialised processing can lead to richer representations in working memory and improve learning outcomes.
  5. Signalling in learning. The study also highlights the importance of signalling in learning, where human gestures or movements can effectively guide learners’ attention to relevant information, thereby enhancing understanding and retention.
  6. Social cognition in learning. Social cognition, involving the interpretation of nonverbal cues like gestures, plays a crucial role in both making and observing movements. This avenue emphasises the communicative power of gestures and object manipulations in educational contexts.

Castro-Alonso adds further insight into the implications for educational practice: “The major implication for educational practice is that teachers and instructional designers should consider making gestures and object manipulations when teaching and also foster that students make gestures and object manipulations. This would be most helpful when the learning topic is difficult or fast-paced.”

About future plans, Castro-Alonso shares: “We are five authors from different places, so each of us has its own research interest to pursue. In my case, I would want to see how signalling with the hands is different from signalling without elements (for example, colour coding), or how manipulations are most helpful when the learning material is complex.”

The study concludes with the potential instructional implications of these findings, suggesting innovative directions for future research in learning and instruction based on the principles of embodied cognition.

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