Finger tracing improves learning: evidence from a century-old practice


A practice used by the pioneer of Montessori education in the early 1900s has received further validation, with studies showing that finger tracing makes learning easier and more motivating. Imagining an object after tracing it can generate even faster learning, for children and adults alike.

Finger tracing has been used by teachers to help students learn for over a century. In the early 1900s, the pioneer of Montessori education encouraged young children to trace letters of the alphabet made from sandpaper with their index fingers, based on the intuition that a multisensory approach ( i.e. visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic) to learning would be most effective. In 1912, Montessori noticed that children, having mastered the sequence of tracing a letter with the index finger, “took great pleasure” in closing their eyes and trying to remember it.

Over 100 years later, his method has received some empirical validation. Two new studies from the University of Sydney show that not only is tracing an effective learning technique; if used in conjunction with the imagination, its positive effect could be amplified.

Maria Montessori in 1913. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Previous Sydney School of Education and Social Work research has shown a link between plotting and mathematical performance. Now, tracing in math and science lessons has been shown to specifically reduce cognitive load (the demands placed on the conscious mind by a range of cognitive activities), thereby improving their ability to learn. It has also been found to potentially increase their motivation to learn. Once students have gained a basic understanding of a subject through tracing, having them close their eyes and “imagine” the steps while tracing improves learning more than additional tracing with their eyes open. .

“Although Australian schools are showing an upward trend in performance in math and science, there is still room for improvement,” said associate professor Paul Ginn, the academic supervisor and co-author of the articles. “Our research shows that tracing and imagining strategies can help. They are free, simple, and can be easily implemented in classrooms, across a range of course topics and media.

Draw triangles

In the first study, published in Educational Psychology Review, 93 students in grades 4 and 5 at a school in Shanghai, China, were learning the properties of angles in a triangle. They were randomly assigned to the control condition, the draw condition, or the draw / imagine condition, and then were given examples of “calculating the missing angle” to be completed under practice and practice conditions. test.

Example of a question asking people to draw a triangle

Credit: Ginns et al.

The control group were ordered to keep their arms by their side. The tracing group traced the shapes, and the tracing / imagination group was tasked with tracing the shape with their eyes open, then closing their eyes and imagining the path.

Following this, all groups completed a 13-item questionnaire measuring motivation and different types of cognitive load during the learning process. Another experiment investigated whether these results could be generalized to a new math subject (mental math), a different age group (Chinese higher education students), and an alternative format (ellipse tracing). in difficult examples of “mental mathematics”).

A mini meta-analysis combining the results of the two experiments showed that students who traced shapes solved similar problems faster. The students who followed also reported lower levels of cognitive load and higher levels of intrinsic motivation during the lesson, compared to those in the control group. In some cases, tracing and then imagining resulted in faster resolution times for test questions than tracing alone.

Tracing the stars

A diagram of the life cycle of a star.

Credit: Ginns et al.

Posted in Research and Development of Educational Technologies, the second study adult participants involved. He examined how the instructions for pointing and plotting the elements of a lesson about the life cycle of a star on a computer screen would help them learn.

44 people were pre-tested on their knowledge of astronomy, then during the lesson they were asked to either “use their hands” to make connections between the text and an associated part of the diagram, or to keep their hands on their hands. knees. The first group reported lower cognitive load and higher interest and enjoyment in the lesson. Importantly, when tested on what they had learned, students who used their hands while studying not only remembered more basic facts from the lesson, but were also able to transfer that understanding to problem solving. not directly addressed in the lesson.

Why tracing works

“There are several reasons that tracing can help learning,” Associate Professor Ginns said. “It seems humans are biologically wired so that we pay more attention to the space near our hands. So when you use an index to plot visual stimuli, those elements of a lesson are given processing priority. Tracing can also help with learning, as it “fragments” all the important pieces of new material into a single piece of information, which makes it easier for us to learn.

Statement: The authors did not receive any external funding for this research.

Hero Image: Gladwyne Montessori School via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Montgomery County Planning Commission.

/ University Liberation. This material is from the original organization / authors and may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author (s). here.

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