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Could Finger Tracing Enhance Learning?

By: Inas Essa

Finger-tracing has been used in the education process since the 1900s when the education pioneer Maria Montessori encouraged young children to trace over alphabet letters made from sandpaper with their index fingers for effective learning. After mastering the sequence of tracing the letter, children close their eyes and try to recall it, using their imagination.

Recently, this method, which is based on a multi-sensory approach, implementing visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, has received further validation with two studies from the University of Sydney. The new studies showed how finger-tracing makes the learning process easier and more motivating, for children and adults. They highlighted how using finger-tracing in conjunction with imagination could boost the positive effect of such a process.


Enhancing the Learning Process

Prior experimental studies have consistently highlighted that finger tracing enhances recognition of visual stimuli, such as letters and geometrical shapes, besides being effective in learning more complex instructions requiring higher levels of abstract thinking and problem-solving skills, such as mathematical topics of geometry and order of operations.

The new study compared alternative sequences of tracing versus tracing then imagination and has found that this method of imaging a topic, with eyes closed, after building a foundational understanding by tracing enhances learning more than tracing with eyes open. Beyond examining learning outcomes, the study also tested motivation and cognitive load to better understand their effects on learning outcomes.

Results showed that tracing could improve task performance by reducing the cognitive load—the demands placed on the conscious mind by a range of cognitive activities. It works as “self-signaling” as the pointed index finger directs attention to the most relevant information, thus, visual search and the cognitive load are reduced. This helps free up the limited cognitive resources in the learning process.


Tracing Triangles Experiment

In the first study, published in the Educational Psychology Review journal, students were taught about the properties of angles in a triangle. After that, the participants were assigned to three different groups: The control group was instructed to place their hands in a comfortable position while studying presented worked examples. The tracing group was asked to use their index fingers to trace the shapes, and the tracing/imagination group were instructed to trace only in the first two worked examples, but then close their eyes and use their index fingers to trace in the latter two worked examples. After that, they were asked to “calculate the missing angle” examples.

Following this, all groups completed a questionnaire that measured motivation and different types of cognitive load during the learning process. Results showed that students who traced the shapes solved problems more quickly, compared to the other groups. Additionally, they reported lower levels of cognitive load and higher levels of motivation during the lesson, compared to those in the control group. Results also indicated that, in some cases, tracing then imagining helped participants in producing faster solutions for test questions than tracing alone.


Tracing the Stars

The second study, which is published in Educational Technology Research and Development, involved adult participants. It was about tracing over elements of a lesson on the lifecycle of a star on a computer screen to investigate how it would help them learn. The 44 participants were instructed to either make links between text and an associated part of the diagram or to keep their hands in their laps.

The first group reported lower cognitive load and higher enjoyment of the lesson. Additionally, when tested on what they had learned, those who used their hands while studying remembered more basic facts from the lesson. They were also able to transfer their understanding to solve problems not directly covered in the lesson.



Sequencing Tracing with Imagination

Pointing and Tracing Enhance Computer-based Learning