Want to Be a Better Learner? Sit Still, Says Science

learning body language
Image via Cornell University

Fidgety kids are often relegated to the back of the classroom, but that may be the wrong approach. A new study out from researchers at Stanford found that students who move around might be less likely to absorb information or be able to recall it during a testing situation.

Conducted by Andrea Stevenson Won, a communication doctoral student and associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, the study aimed to examine nonverbal behavioral cues and their implications, by asking one student to teach another a series of information, while Microsoft Kinnect 3-D cameras recorded the motions and body language cues of both parties.

The findings revealed information about both the teachers (who were actually fellow students) and the students.

“For our sample and our task, students with very extreme movements with their upper body tended to learn worse than others,” Bailenson explained. Essentially, students whose upper-body movements were more exaggerated during instruction were less likely to perform well on tests about the material.

The study also has an impact on how instructors behave.

The model showed that “large, irregular movements of the teacher’s head and torso correlated to – and could predict – poor test scores.”

“When I teach, I pace the entire time…This data is showing that this is probably not a great strategy,” added Bailenson.

The researchers also looked at creativity and body language in a related study, and found that students who worked in pairs that seemed to jive well together — those which demonstrated similar motions and gestures, as opposed to pairs where just one person was nodding a lot — we able to come up with more ideas.

The body language each student assumed when working in pairs was an indicator of their ability to be a good team member, as well. That, says Bailenson, means the study could offer employers a new way to screen potential employees.

“Imagine trying to hire pairs to work on a project…Give your dozen candidates a two-minute test to see which pairs synchronize and which ones don’t. So now you’ve got a basically innovative team detector.”

Of course, with all studies, the research isn’t a surefire way to test the learning abilities of pupils.

“…The critical thing from a psychological perspective as well as an applications perspective is that regardless of whether we know the cause, we can detect whether people are about to learn or not,” says Bailenson. “This gives us the opportunity to devise ways to adjust in real time to improve learning.”

Want to learn more about the impacts of body language — in everything from learning to business? Vanessa Van Edwards has the secret in her CreativeLive class, The Power of Body Language.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.