Initial Publication Date: June 27, 2012

Research Recommendations from the Spatial Thinking Journal Club

This summary was compiled by Carol Ormand, Science Education Resource Center.

From January to May, 2012, the Spatial Thinking Journal Club met once a month to explore the cognitive aspects of spatial thinking and the implications for geoscience education and research. Our recommendations for research directions and design, based on these discussions, are summarized below.

Jump down to designing compelling research projects about spatial thinking.

Recommended research directions and questions related to spatial thinking in STEM

  • Refine our characterization of what spatial thinking is and how to assess it.
    • Are the same students good at different spatial strategies, or are different students good at different spatial strategies? If, for example, geology students tend to be either spatial visualizers or object visualizers, but not both, can we help both groups to improve their weaker skills?
    • How do spatial skills in geosciences experts change with age and experience?
    • When do geoscience experts rely on spatial thinking skills to solve spatial problems, and when do we "solve" those problems by recognizing that they are variations on problems that have already been solved?
    • What is the relationship between spatial thinking, temporal thinking, systems thinking, and quantitative thinking?
    • What is an authentic assessment of a student's ability to perform a spatial task within a disciplinary context? Is it a psychometric test, a disciplinary task, some combination thereof, or ?
  • What spatial skills are essential to success in geoscience, or in other STEM disciplines?
    • Are spatial skills more strongly linked to success in geoscience than in other STEM disciplines?
    • If so, what particular spatial skills we should be trying to teach in the context of our geology classes?
    • What spatial thinking abilities are most effectively targeted by training? That is, are there one or more key components of spatial thinking to focus training efforts on?
  • Understand the interplay between the affective domain, spatial thinking skills, and the retention of students. For instance:
    • What approaches to teaching would make our course content more compelling to students? If students were strongly engaged, might they work on their spatial skills on their own?
    • To what extent do anxiety, low self-efficacy, and other affective factors interfere with the development of students' spatial thinking skills? How can we help students overcome those barriers to learning?
    • How important is spatial thinking in attracting students to and retaining students within the major?
  • What approaches to teaching/training spatial thinking skills are most effective?
    • What are best practices for the use of technology in training spatial thinking skills?
      • Can low-spatial individuals can understand what computer graphics are showing? Are there ways of designing computer graphics so that people of all spatial abilities can make sense of them? What are best practices in the design of computer visualizations?
    • How can we evaluate what makes a population successful at spatial thinking and then utilize that to help less successful populations? For example, Deaf high school students learn to take strike and dip measurements in a matter of minutes (Cooke, personal communication); Native American cultures are attuned to location and wayfinding.
    • Can virtual environments be used effectively to simulate authentic geological spatial problems? How would/does training in a virtual environment compare to an immersive experience (like field mapping)?
      • In the petroleum industry, 3D interpretation is done in a virtual world. We cannot immerse ourselves in the subsurface. So building mental models using virtual reality is important, and we need to know how best to help people develop the ability to do that.
  • How is spatial learning affected by the learning environment: the classroom, hands-on lab, the field, textbook or online equivalent, and interactive computer-mediated learning materials?
  • How well do spatial skills transfer across disciplinary boundaries?
    • If we want students to be able to perform a particular spatial task, is it better (more effective, more efficient) to train them to perform the spatial task absent any disciplinary context, or within a disciplinary context? Does the answer to this question depend on whether their future ability to perform the task in a different context is important?
    • How much does the ability to transfer a spatial thinking skill to a new context vary from person to person? That is, are some individuals simply better at transferring skills to new contexts, regardless of the skill in question?
    • Do strong spatial skills predict strong performance on spatial tasks within the discipline? What about the reverse?

Recommendations for designing compelling research projects about spatial thinking

  • Include measures of general intelligence. An easy way to do this is to gather information about students' SAT scores and control for these in the analysis.
  • If you are testing the efficacy of an educational intervention (some set of spatial thinking exercises, for example) include a control group who take the pre- and post-test without the intervention. There is strong evidence (Uttal and Cohen, in press) that taking a spatial test twice can lead to substantial gains in performance, so seeing improvement from pre- to post-tests does not necessarily indicate the efficacy of the intervention.
    • What is a good control group? It can't be a class in a completely different discipline, e.g. history, because students in this discipline are unlikely to be equivalent at the pre-test. It is also important to control for whether students are taking some other course(s), such as chemistry or art, that might also develop their spatial abilities. Ideally, the same pre- and post-tests could be administered in different sections of the same course, where one section is given the intervention and the other section spends an equal amount of time on the same topic but without the intervention. Ideally this can be done simultaneously but in reality it is often done sequentially, which means that it can take quite a long time to run a study.
  • Use valid and reliable assessments, and know what they measure. This is more challenging than it sounds.
    • Scholars of spatial thinking have identified several dimensions along which spatial and visualization skills vary, and have classified spatial assessments along these dimensions, including:
      • Large scale versus small-scale (e.g. landscape versus crystal);
      • Static versus dynamic (e.g. a rock layer versus a weather system);
      • Intrinsic versus extrinsic (within object, e.g. Earth's rotation, versus between objects, e.g. Earth's revolution around the Sun); and
      • Object visualization versus spatial visualization.
    • For STEM educators the important question is likely to be whether students can apply spatial thinking skills within the discipline. Cognitive scientists may be more interested in whether students learn more abstract spatial skills. There are also important questions about whether students can apply spatial skills learned in the context of geology to other disciplines if they later switch majors (far field transfer), or even whether students can apply spatial skills learned within one geology course to spatially similar problems in other geology courses (near transfer).
    • One issue with common measures of spatial ability is that they typically show line drawings that have hardly any depth cues. This raises the question of whether gains due to training are mostly about training people to see 3D from line drawings.
  • Build on what we can learn and have learned from cognitive studies of spatial skills in other STEM disciplines.
  • Collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. Research designed by cognitive scientists collaborating with scientists in the STEM disciplines is likely to be better-designed and more compelling than research projects designed independently by scientists in any single discipline.


  • Uttal and Cohen, in press, Spatial Thinking and STEM Education: When, Why, and How? To appear in B. H. Ross (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation.

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