Gestures, embodiment, and learning the rate of change

Yanning Yu*, David H. Uttal

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many researchers have stressed the embodied nature of mathematical understanding. Here we explore how embodied knowledge may evolve as students learn a basic calculus concept: the rate of change. We examined undergraduate students with different levels of calculus knowledge working in pairs to model the rate of change in an everyday phenomenon. Our findings revealed substantial differences between advanced and introductory students in how they represented rate of change with their speech and gestures. In particular, the advanced students’ embodied representations showed alignment with the formal symbolic process of integration and reflected more advanced ways to coordinate the relation between multiple changing variables. For example, advanced students often made gestures that represented a “disk” when explaining how the rate at which water rose in a bottle was related to the change in height. Thus, both introductory and advanced students demonstrated embodied knowledge through speech and gestures, but the advanced students constructed different concrete representations that reflected an advancement in their embodied knowledge. Our findings are relevant to calculus education and to the study of gestures in mathematics learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)203-229
Number of pages27
JournalMathematical Thinking and Learning
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022


  • Gesture
  • calculus
  • embodiment
  • representation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mathematics(all)
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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