The Power Of Interactive Learning

Interactions in learning represent far more than the act of clicking a button or a hyperlink. Our physical bodies are intricately tied up with shaping our experience of the world and it’s time for learning experience designers to take advantage of new research that promotes this line of thinking.

How We Think About Thinking

For several decades, cognitive science regarded the mind as an abstract information processor, fairly analogous to a computer. There is growing evidence, however, that we think not just with our brains, but in collaboration with our bodies too. And even more important, that interactive experiences can promote cognitive performance.

These close ties between mind and body arise from the theories of Embodied Cognition, which is concerned with the many ways in which cognition is grounded in the body and its interaction with the environment. This has deep implications for online learning.

Apparently, there is much more to cognition than mental representation. According to Michael Anderson of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Computer Studies, “Cognition exploits repeated interaction with the environment, not only using the world as its own best model, but creating structures which advance and simplify cognitive tasks.”

The Evidence is Compelling

Evidence that the mind-body connection is stronger than previously thought is compelling. In the embodied view, anything going on inside the brain might depend on what’s going on in the body and how that body is reacting to it’s environment.

First, think about the use of speech gestures. Research shows that people use their hands to speak for more than face-to-face communication. In fact, people use speech gestures on the phone and in the dark, when no one can see them.

Furthermore, several studies showed that both congenitally blind and sighted children used similar speech gestures when they were explaining a series of tasks they had completed. In addition, both groups used gestures at the same rate. (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow, 2001). Apparently, gestures help us plan and produce speech, reflecting the close connection between mind and body.

Other compelling samples of research that support Embodiment Theory are listed below with the researcher’s name in parentheses.

  • Working through a design challenge is often more effective than just thinking it through. (D.A. Schön)
  • Subjects who were given a difficult spatial relations puzzle showed distinctive patterns of eye movement right before they arrived at the solution. They seemed to unconsciously solve the problem by enacting potential solutions with their gaze. (Michael Spivey)
  • Children who were told to gesture while thinking, solved arithmetic problems that would normally be too difficult for them to solve. (Susan Goldin-Meadow)
  • Actors have an easier time remembering their lines if they gesture or move. (Helga Noice)
  • Gesturing has been shown to lighten the cognitive load for both adults and children when explaining mathematics. (Susan Goldin-Meadow)

Applications to Online Learning

Embodied Cognition is telling us that effective learning takes place in a dynamic environment that includes interaction and manipulation. I think we can simulate these experiences even if they are digitally-based. People learn by doing.

In addition, brain science is proving that our sense of the body extends to the tools we use. This implies that when users produce an action through a mouse or a gestural interface, it can correspond to performing that action in the physical world. Interactions are a powerful element of improving cognitive performance and a proven way that we make sense of the world. Let’s make more use of them.

To Learn More:
How the Body Shapes the Mind
by Shaun Gallagher
Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think
by Susan Goldin-Meadow

Michael L. Anderson, Embodied Cognition: A Field Guide. Artificial Intelligence, 149 (2003) 91–130.
Iverson, J. M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. The resilience of gesture in talk: Gesture in blind speakers and listeners. Developmental Science, 2001, 4, 416-422.

What do you think about the mind-body connection in learning? Comment below.

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  1. Susan W says

    We provide a lot of demonstrations…but I think we need to shift to a more “guided simulation” method where we require the learner to click through the demo instead of just sitting back and watching. We’ve done this a little, but it hasn’t been our prevalent method. This is a great article. Thanks for the reminder about interactivity and how the body-mind are intertwined.

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Susan,
    I know exactly what you mean. Demos are kind of easy and fast to pull off. Guided sims probably are better, as long as they aren’t so long learners forget the steps to a task anyway. Then a job aid might be best.

  3. Dean Earlix says

    A recent publication (the October 29th 2010 Science), sheds a little light on the mind-body connection discussed in this blog entry. Logan and Crump of Vanderbilt University showed that even when a typist’s mental representation of an error was masked (by experimentally falsified visual feedback) hesitation in their finger movements betrayed detection of the error independently of their conscious cognition. The article is discussed in Science News: .

  4. Connie Malamed says

    Fascinating study, Dean. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I’m really impressed that someone could have even conceived of such a study! And the results are fascinating. Will read.

  5. Cheryl McNeil says

    Interesting thoughts. So basic rollovers and on-clicks alone do not stimulate learning, if not combined with a test of cognitive skills? I’m curious on your thoughts. Anyone? 😉


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