As gesture-based interactions with computer interfaces become more technologically feasible for educational and training systems, it is important to consider what interactions are best for the learner. Computer interactions should not interfere with learning nor increase the mental effort of completing the lesson. The purpose of the current set of studies was to determine whether natural gesture-based interactions, or instruction of those gestures, help the learner in a computer lesson by increasing learning and reducing mental effort. First, two studies were conducted to determine what gestures were considered natural by participants. Then, those gestures were implemented in an experiment to compare type of gesture and type of gesture instruction on learning conceptual information from a computer lesson. The goal of these studies was to determine the instructional efficiency – that is, the extent of learning taking into account the amount of mental effort – of implementing gesture-based interactions in a conceptual computer lesson. To test whether the type of gesture interaction affects conceptual learning in a computer lesson, the gesture-based interactions were either naturally- or arbitrarily-mapped to the learning material on the fundamentals of optics. The optics lesson presented conceptual information about reflection and refraction, and participants used the gesture-based interactions during the lesson to manipulate on-screen lenses and mirrors in a beam of light. The beam of light refracted/reflected at the angle corresponding with type of lens/mirror. The natural gesture-based interactions were those that mimicked the physical movement used to manipulate the lenses and mirrors in the optics lesson, while the arbitrary gestures were those that did not match the movement of the lens or mirror being manipulated. The natural gestures implemented in the computer lesson were determined from Study 1, in which participants performed gestures they considered natural for a set of actions, and rated in Study 2 as most closely resembling the physical interaction they represent. The arbitrary gestures were rated by participants as most arbitrary for each computer action in Study 2. To test whether the effect of novel gesture-based interactions depends on how they are taught, the way the gestures were instructed was varied in the main experiment by using either video- or text-based tutorials. Results of the experiment support that natural gesture-based interactions were better for learning than arbitrary gestures, and instruction of the gestures largely did not affect learning and amount of mental effort felt during the task. To further investigate the factors affecting instructional efficiency in using gesture-based interactions for a computer lesson, individual differences of the learner were taken into account. Results indicated that the instructional efficiency of the gestures and their instruction depended on an individual's spatial ability, such that arbitrary gesture interactions taught with a text-based tutorial were particularly inefficient for those with lower spatial ability. These findings are explained in the context of Embodied Cognition and Cognitive Load Theory, and guidelines are provided for instructional design of computer lessons using natural user interfaces. The theoretical frameworks of Embodied Cognition and Cognitive Load Theory were used to explain why gesture-based interactions and their instructions impacted the instructional efficiency of these factors in a computer lesson. Gesture-based interactions that are natural (i.e., mimic the physical interaction by corresponding to the learning material) were more instructionally efficient than arbitrary gestures because natural gestures may help schema development of conceptual information through physical enactment of the learning material. Furthermore, natural gestures resulted in lower cognitive load than arbitrary gestures, because arbitrary gestures that do not match the learning material may increase the working memory processing not associated with the learning material during the lesson. Additionally, the way in which the gesture-based interactions were taught was varied by either instructing the gestures with video- or text-based tutorials, and it was hypothesized that video-based tutorials would be a better way to instruct gesture-based interactions because the videos may help the learner to visualize the interactions and create a more easily recalled sensorimotor representation for the gestures; however, this hypothesis was not supported and there was not strong evidence that video-based tutorials were more instructionally efficient than text-based instructions. The results of the current set of studies can be applied to educational and training systems that incorporate a gesture-based interface. The finding that more natural gestures are better for learning efficiency, cognitive load, and a variety of usability factors should encourage instructional designers and researchers to keep the user in mind when developing gesture-based interactions.


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Graduation Date





Sims, Valerie


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Psychology; Human Factors Cognitive Psychology









Release Date

June 2018

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)