Spatial Reasoning in the Geosciences

Thursday, Friday 8:30am-11:30am Ogg: Classroom 1227

Session Chairs

Carol Ormand Ph.D., Carleton College
Eric Riggs, Humboldt State University
How can we improve students' spatial reasoning? This workshop will present an overview of research on spatial skills and how those research results can be applied to student learning in the classroom, lab, and field.


Research in geoscience education by DBER researchers and cognitive scientists has begun to reveal a rich landscape of spatial reasoning and skills that are used by successful students and practitioners in the earth sciences. While much of this research is still in relatively early stages, some of this work has advanced far enough to offer practical insights and inform best practice in classroom and field instruction.

This session is designed to answer the question, "That's a really interesting research result, but how can I use that to improve my teaching?" Translating research into practice is one of the most important and difficult steps in STEM education research, and for discipline-based education research (DBER) it is probably the most valuable long-range outcome. The workshop leaders both actively conduct research in various elements of spatial reasoning in the field, classroom, and lab in the geosciences. We both also conduct this research in a spirit of improving instruction in the geosciences through better understanding of how students learn and why. It is our goal that workshop participants will leave with an understanding of what we do know about spatial reasoning well enough to apply in real teaching settings, and a clear idea of how to apply this research in your own courses.

Spatial reasoning in the geosciences includes three-dimensional visualization, mental rotations and folding, penetrative thinking, and relational reasoning that leads to an understanding of navigation, way-finding and perspective-taking in field or other spatially-embedded settings. Student success in especially the solid earth geosciences has been shown to be dependent on spatial reasoning skills, and we now know that earth scientists have, as a whole, high spatial ability relative to the general population and many other academic and even scientific fields. Fortunately, spatial skills are malleable. This highlights the value of understanding how instructors can identify students' spatial thinking strengths and weaknesses, and also which types of interventions have been shown to generate improvement.

The workshop will be based on tools, instrument, and research. Our goal is to have participants leave with a rudimentary understanding of the state of the art in spatial reasoning research and an understanding of the spatial skills that have been well-investigated in the geosciences. We will also equip participants with instruments and measures of spatial reasoning that have been found to be useful for diagnosing and recognizing spatial skills in geoscience instruction, and take-home strategies for enhancing spatial skills, to the extent that these are known.

Target Audience

The target audience for this workshop is any instructor seeking to improve the spatial reasoning aspects of their geoscience instruction, primarily focusing on undergraduate and graduate-level instruction. We have designed this workshop experience to accommodate instructors with no previous experience with DBER or STEM education research and for instructors seeking to incorporate new strategies. Most of the examples will focus on solid earth geosciences, but all fields are welcome.


As a result of participation in the workshop, participants will be able to:

  • Understand what we do and don't know about how students succeed in spatial reasoning;
  • Employ tools and instruments as formative assessment activities to measure student spatial skills;
  • Generate or apply appropriate teaching strategies or activities to improve student success in spatial reasoning; and
  • Provide feedback to the research community about emerging priority areas for further investigation of spatial skills.


The workshop will be broken into modules focused on discrete types of spatial reasoning skills. Each module will include a general introduction to the literature and depth and applicability of research, followed by a hands-on exploration of instruments and techniques for measuring spatial reasoning. Each module will include teaching strategies (if they have been developed) or a guided discussion of potential teaching strategies which either have been shown to or hold the promise of further developing spatial reasoning in geoscience students.

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