You are here

Visual-spatial Ability in STEM Education

Myint Swe Khine, editor
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Cindia Davis Stewart
, on

Visual-spatial Ability in STEM Education: Transforming Research into Practice is an anthology edited by Myint Swe Khine. Following the author’s introduction, the eleven entries are divided in two sections, the first focusing on measurement and development of spatial ability, and the second on research and practice.

While I read the book in its entirety in order to write this review, I recommend that readers, unless visual-spatial ability is a research interest, be selective in their choice of articles. Readers who are sensitive to writing quality may want to avoid some chapters. I found the content in several chapters to be somewhat obscured by subject-verb agreement violations, incorrect word selections, and awkward sentence structures.

I highly recommend Chapters 6, 5, and 2, as they are well-written and informative. I suggest they should be read in that order: 6, then 5, then 2. Articulated in chapter 6 is why we should be concerned about identifying students with spatial ability. In chapter 5, we read about the myriad definitions of spatial visualization, various components of spatial reasoning, tests commonly used to measure spatial ability, gender difference, and transferability of spatial skills. Research regarding the use spatial ability tests to predict the success of USAF pilot trainees is the focus of chapter 2.

What Innovations Have We Already Lost?: The Importance of Identifying and Developing Spatial Talent, the essay found in chapter 6, provides motivation on why mathematicians and mathematics educators should be knowledgeable about visual-spatial ability and the identification of spatial ability in students. Mathematics educators should advocate for more inclusion of spatial ability testing in schools. Readers of this article are asked to consider what the world has potentially lost in terms of creative output due to children not being assessed for spatial ability. Authors Wei and Kell review a number of studies that link spatial ability to STEM achievement, and conclude that spatially talented students and adults are being neglected. The majority of standardized tests administered at the K–12 level, as well as SAT and ACT, do not include a spatial measure. The result is that spatially adept students go unidentified and their talent is unlikely to be fully developed. The authors suggest that the time is now to focus on helping spatially talented students engineer our future so that “we might have incredible things that are not yet imagined.”

According to Gardner (1983, p. 9), “spatial intelligence is the ability of forming a mental model of the spatial world and maneuvering and working with this model.” In chapter 5, Various Spatial Skills, Gender Differences, and Transferability of Spatial Skills, Wang first addresses the question, “What is spatial ability?” Definitions of spatial ability are not universally agreed on. What we do know is that spatial ability (excuse the pun) is multi-dimensional. Among the ways to think about spatial ability is to distinguish between spatial visualization and spatial orientation. Another approach categorizes mental rotation as different from perspective taking. And a third option divides spatial skills in terms of spatial manipulation and spatial orientation.

Spatial manipulation, also known as small-scale spatial skill, involves mental transformations along an allocentric frame of reference. In other words, the mental transformation is completed by focusing on the central axis of the reference object. Large-scale spatial ability refers to spatial orientation or perspective taking. Mental transformations use an egocentric frame of reference, that is, the central axis of one’s body. Research has shown that while performing spatial manipulation tasks and spatial orientation tasks different areas of the brain show activity. Thus, the evaluation and developing small-scale and large-scale spatial skills should be treated as separate skills.

Wang reviews research related to how working memory effects one’s performance on spatial ability tasks. Working memory refers to the limited amount of cognitive resources available to process visuospatial information. Data related to visuospatial working memory and strategy use have been used to explain gender differences in spatial skills. For example, researchers have found that on large-scale spatial tasks such a traversing from one side of a city to the other side, females favor “route” strategies that focus on landmarks in contrast to males who tend to use a “survey” strategies which utilize metric information. A “route” strategy is highly dependent on location and memory. A “survey” strategy using spatial configurations formed by objects in space is more reliable and flexible. A similar finding holds true for mental rotation strategies in which approaches are typically holistic or analytic (piecemeal), the difference being that holistic strategies involve holding the entire figure being rotated in one’s mind and analytic strategies that focus on one aspect of the figure, perhaps a point or an edge, and visualizing the rotation of that one aspect.

The final portion of Wang’s chapter is devoted to evidence that supports the association of between numerical magnitude and space. Several research studies with young children reveal that spatial ability is malleable and development of spatial skills can be improved with training. Some studies have found that improvement in spatial skills has a positive impact on mathematics achievement in general.

Chapter 2 Validity of Spatial Ability Tests for Selection into STEM Career Fields: The Example of Military Aviation is authored by Johnson, Barron, Rose and Carretta. The researchers examined the role spatial ability plays in predicting primary flight training outcomes for USAF pilot and air trainees. Organizations must weigh potential advantages and disadvantages of assessing spatial ability when selecting candidates for highly-specialized roles such as military aviation. Military aviation involves training applicants with little or no prior aviation experience and initial spatial ability seems to play a critical role in predicting the success of pilot and air trainees. Thus, the military has a vested interest in identifying, selecting, and classifying spatial talent.

The researchers defined spatial visualization as the process of apprehending, encoding, and mentally manipulating spatial forms within and between one, two, or three-dimensional space. Spatial ability manifests in other areas too, such as visual memory, closure and perceptual speed, and kinesthetic coordination. Working on the assumption that initial spatial ability may set the trajectory of long-term success, the researchers compared and contrasted traditional (verbal and quantitative) and non-traditional (spatial ability, perceptual ability, specialized knowledge) tests of cognitive aptitude using exploratory factor analysis.

The authors found that individuals who perform most highly on tests of traditional academic measures are different from those who perform most highly on spatial aptitude measures. This supports the point that has already been made, that students with spatial aptitude are not being identified through the use of traditional tests. Another finding was that quantitative aptitude is a better predictor of pilot training outcomes than verbal aptitude. In fact, the researchers suggest organizations choosing a single type of screening might view the content of traditional aptitude testing for quantitative reasoning sufficient. However, when a STEM field involves both an academic and “hands-on” nature, such as the training of military pilots, inclusion of spatial cognition (spatial ability and perceptual speed) subtests as part of the screening process is a better predictor of training outcomes than use of traditional tests alone.

In summary, Visual-spatial Ability in STEM Education: Transforming Research into Practice is a good read for those interested in spatial reasoning research, for mathematics educators wanting to make an impact on children’s development of spatial reasoning, and for all who work with STEM students and programs.

Cindia Davis Stewart is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Shenandoah University located in Winchester, Virginia. 

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.