Teaching Spatial Thinking

Spatial thinking is fundamental in the geosciences. From visualizing atmospheric, ocean, or mantle circulation patterns to navigating unfamiliar landscapes to constructing a cross-section through deformed rocks, geoscientists rely on spatial thinking to understand how the Earth works and to solve geological problems. An understanding of the cognitive processes associated with spatial thinking supports teaching and learning spatial thinking skills.

Spatial Thinking and Learning | Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences | Teaching Spatial Thinking | Events | Contribute a Resource

Spatial Thinking and Learning

Spatial thinking, like any cognitive skill, can be taught and learned. (See Research on Spatial Thinking for a brief overview of relevant research literature). Moreover, spatial thinking is not a single cognitive skill; rather, it includes such skills as navigation, visualization, mental rotation, perspective taking, penetrative thinking (such as imagining the interior of an object), and disembedding ("seeing" the important spatial information in a noisy dataset, such as a seismic reflection profile). Because spatial thinking is so multi-faceted, as well as fundamental to the geosciences, it deserves particular attention in our curricula.

Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences

Spatial thinking, while not unique to the geosciences, is one of the hallmarks of geoscientific thinking (e.g. Kastens et al., 2009; Manduca and Kastens, 2012). As Kastens et al. (2009) remind us, "Geoscientists use spatial thinking extensively whenever they acquire, represent, manipulate, or reason about objects, processes, or phenomena in space." Read more about spatial thinking in the geosciences.

Teaching Spatial Thinking

The Place of Spatial Thinking in the Curriculum

Because spatial thinking pervades the geosciences, it is best developed through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. To produce graduates who are proficient at spatial thinking, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. See examples of how faculty are teaching spatial thinking across the geoscience curriculum.

Selected Pedagogical Approaches

Resource Collections

The resource collections listed below are contributed by faculty members from across the country.


  • 2012 Spatial Thinking Journal Club:
    From January to May, 2012, the Spatial Thinking Journal Club met once a month to discuss readings from the geoscience and cognitive science literature, exploring the cognitive aspects of spatial thinking and their implications for geoscience education. Read the journal club's summary of findings and recommendations for research on spatial thinking in the geosciences.

Contribute a Resource

The contributions of resources is what makes the On the Cutting Edge collections rich and diverse. Please add your resources to these growing collections.

Teaching activity

Contribute a classroom activity, laboratory exercise, or problem set that you use to teach spatial thinking skills via the Teach the Earth contribute form.

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