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Spatial Visualization Skills FAQs
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  1. Why do strong spatial visualization skills improve retention of engineering and computer science students?
  2. What spatial skills testing resources are available to me and what is the cost?
  3. Which students should be tested and who should be recommended for the spatial skills training?
  4. How do we communicate the concept of spatial skills testing and training to students and parents?
  5. When should I test students?
  6. What spatial skills curriculum is available to me and who can teach the course?
  7. How should the spatial skills course be structured?
  8. How do I know if spatial skills training for engineering students is making a difference?
  9. What do students and faculty think about the spatial skills training?
  10. Citations for all references in the Spatial Visualization FAQs

 

1. Why do strong spatial visualization skills improve retention of engineering and computer science students?

Strong spatial visualization skills are cognitive skills that are linked to success in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and computer science fields. Well-developed math and verbal skills are universally recognized as necessary for success in STEM and the National Science Board maintains that spatial skills should be added to this list (National Science Board, 2010).

Poor performance on spatial-visualization tasks can directly affect students’ perceptions of self-efficacy, (e.g. belief in ones capability to succeed in engineering). This is particularly evident among women and individuals from lower socioeconomic groups (Hsi, Linn, & Bell, 1997; Rafi & Samsudin, 2007; Sorby, 2009; Towle et al., 2005). 

Research has demonstrated that training is an effective way to improve spatial visualization skills (Contero et al., 2006; Ferguson, Ball, McDaniel, & Anderson, 2008; Hand, Uttal, Marulis, & Newcombe, 2008; Hsi et al., 1997; Martín-Dorta et al., 2008; Newcombe, 2006; Onyancha, Derov, & Kinsey, 2009; Onyancha, R., Towle, E., & Kinsey, B., 2007; Sorby, 2009; Sorby & Baartmans, 2000; Terlecki, Newcombe, & Little, 2008).  In the area of mental rotation where the largest gender gap in performance exists, training has been effective as well (Sorby & Baartmans, 2000; Sorby, Drummer, Hungwe, Parolini, & Molzan, 2006).

In one study, students who failed the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test (PSVT:R) and enrolled in spatial skills training were able to improve their scores on the mental rotation test from approximately 50% to 77% or higher than students who failed the test and did not enroll in the course. These students also got better grades in 1st year STEM courses (Sorby, 2009).

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2. What spatial skills testing resources are available to me and what is the cost?

Use your course or learning management system (e.g. Moodle, Blackboard) to host and grade the PSVT:R pre and post tests. A license for a scanned digital version of the PSVT:R can be purchased for $25.00 from the Educational Testing Service. This link will provide you with the information you need.

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3. Which students should be tested and who should be recommended for the spatial skills training?

All first year engineering students should take the spatial skills test.  

Students who have weaker spatial skills are not necessarily poor students academically overall—they typically have less experience with activities that promote these skills. The important thing to remember about spatial skills is that they are malleable and can be developed through practice, just like any other skill.  And, once this skill is learned (through a short training course) grades in STEM courses will improve, increasing the chance for success in engineering and computer science.  

Research indicates that students who fall below 60% on the PSVT: R are more successful in engineering study if they participate in a spatial skills training course that includes specific components. Evidence from a recent study indicates that students who score between 60% - 70%  on the PSVT:R benefit from the training as well (Sorby & Veurink, 2010).  In one study, students who participated in the training earned higher grades in a variety of STEM courses and were retained within engineering study at a higher rate when compared to a similar group of students who did not participate in the training (Sorby, 2009).  

4. How do we communicate the concept of spatial skills testing and training to students and parents?

See Benefits for Students Talking Points to use as an information piece that can accompany an email to discuss spatial skills testing and training. Consider using this email draft template to contact your students.  Some ENGAGE schools have found it effective for freshmen advisors to meet with students who require the training. 

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5. When should I test students?

Implement spatial skills testing in the summer so that students who score below the 60% or 70% (see FAQ 4) may enroll in a spatial skills course in the fall.  This can be done during on-campus orientation and/or students can take the test remotely at his/her convenience during a timeframe that you specify (e.g. during the summer before the semester begins). 

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6. What spatial skills curriculum is available to me and who can teach the course?

ENGAGE suggests Developing Spatial Thinking, a curriculum developed and tested over time by Dr. Sheryl Sorby and colleagues (Sorby & Baartmans, 2000; Sorby, Drummer, Hungwe, Parolini, & Molzan, 2006; Sorby, 2009;). Ordering information for workbook, CD and snap cubes can be found on the ENGAGE Spatial Skills Teaching Resources web page. 

Lecture notes to introduce the 10 course modules (surfaces and solids of revolution, combining solid objects, isometric drawings and coded plans, orthographic drawings, orthographic projections of inclined and curved surfaces, flat patterns, rotation of objects about a single axis, rotation of objects about two or more axes, object reflections and symmetry, and cutting planes and cross sections)  are available on the ENGAGE Spatial Skills Teaching Resources web page.  

Using the workbook, CD and introductory lecture notes, the course has been taught by faculty, graduate students or even strong undergraduate students.  You can select or design a different curriculum, but there needs to be evidence or a rationale that it is effective. 

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7. How should the spatial skills course be structured?

The experiences of ENGAGE schools have confirmed the research in this area. Spatial skills training should be offered in one of the following formats: 

  1. Require a course for students who fall below 60% (or 70%, see FAQ 4) on the PSVT:R.  Offer the course as a graded for-credit course to increase the likelihood that students will attend. Involve academic advisors in supporting student's efforts to adjust his/her course schedule to be able to take the spatial visualization class.
  2. Automatically enroll students who fall below 60% (or 70%, see FAQ 4) into a voluntary, graded for-credit spatial skills course in their first semester.  Read about the experiences of Virginia Tech.
  3. Integrate spatial skills training into a required course. Caution!  Use this approach only if the majority of your students have weak spatial skills. Do not use this approach if only a small percentage of students require this training.
  4. Require supplemental instruction sessions for students with weak skills and give a grade and/or record attendance. This approach is similar to requiring tutoring sessions for students with weak math skills. Voluntary supplemental instruction sessions are NOT effective in improving student performance. (Implementing ENGAGE Strategies to Improve Retention: Focus on Spatial Skills-  ENGAGE Schools Discuss Successes and Challenges and Addendum from Virginia Tech to Paper Presented at ASEE 2011 Conference, Vancouver, BC).

Schedule the spatial skills training so students have time to do the homework and absorb what they learn from each module. Don't try to cram it all into a one or two week session.

Materials work best in a supervised lab setting so that students have time to practice or ask questions if they have problems with the material.

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8. How do I know if spatial skills training for engineering and computer science students is making a difference?

We know that students who enter engineering with low spatial skills are less apt to stay in the major than other students. We also know that training can improve student spatial skills relatively easily.  Students with low spatial skills who improve their skills sufficiently continue on in engineering an computer science at higher rates than do others with low skills.  These are particularly important findings for diversity since majority women and minority women and men tend, on average, to have lower spatial skills at entry into college.  You can find out more about the research at ENGAGE Research Brief: Spatial Visualization Skills and  Spatial Skills: A Focus on Gender and Engineering.

If you test your students’ spatial skills and provide training for those with low skills, you are improving their chances for success.  Comparing their pre and post training spatial skills will help you see how effective your training is. If you want to track the retention rates (strongly encouraged!) of those who are trained and improve their skills compared to others, ENGAGE will be happy to help.

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9. What do students and faculty think about the spatial skills training?

 
During the last academic year, we piloted a new course, ENG 180, to provide students with spatial visualization exercise and development.  Nearly all students who provided feedback substantially improved their spatial visualization scores and strongly felt that it helped them achieve better grades in their Fundamentals of Engineering courses.  The feedback from students in this course was overwhelmingly positive, so we have decided to begin regularly offering this 1-credit pass/fail course every Autumn, meeting for just one hour once per week.  

- The Ohio State University

We are very excited about the results and will be piloting two additional groups in the spring. Students falling below the threshold will be offered a spot in a semester-long, credit bearing seminar. The plan is that all incoming engineering students will be required to test prior to enrollment starting in fall.

- University of Texas at Austin
 
We administered the test [PSVT-R] during summer orientation to all incoming freshmen and transfer students, which gave us the opportunity to discuss visualization with both students and their parents.
 
- University of South Carolina 
 
I definitely believe that the sessions improved my spatial visualization skills. After attending the sessions,  I got a  97%. I enjoyed doing most of the exercises. The easy ones ensured your understanding and the more difficult ones challenged you to apply the concepts that you just learned. For this class being on a Friday, I think it's saying something that is was the class I most looked forward to going to.
 
- University of Louisville student
 
When I was just starting this course, I did not have much confidence in my ability to manipulate objects mentally, but I am now much more confident in my ability to do so. I have improved by using the building blocks to build objects and then rotate them physically, but I have largely improved from practicing building objects using the spatial skills software.
 
- University of Maryland student
 
The Spatial Visualization class helped so much. I was never introduced to spatial visualization exercises before and as an aspiring engineer knew that I had to be familiar with this material. Most exercises were thought provoking and helped my visualization tenfold. I loved this class!
 
- University of Louisville student
 

 

10. Citations for all references in the Spatial Visualization FAQs  

Contero, M., Naya, F., Company, P., & Saorín, J. L. (2006). Learning support tools for developing spatial abilities in engineering design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 22(3), 470–77.

Ferguson,C., Ball,A., McDaniel,W., and Anderson, R. (2008). “A Comparison of Instructional Methods for Improving the Spatial-Visualization Ability of Freshman Technology Seminar Students.” In the Proceedings of the IAJC-IJME International Conference.

Hand, L. L, Uttal, D. H., Marulis, L., & Newcombe, N. S. (2008). A meta-analysis of training effects on spatial skills. Presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science, Chicago.

Hsi, S., Linn, M. C., & Bell, J. E. (1997). The role of spatial reasoning in engineering and the design of spatial instruction. Journal of Engineering Education, 86(2), 151–58.

Martín-Dorta, N., Saorín, S. J., & Contero, M. (2008). Development of a fast remedial course to improve the spatial abilities of engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(4), 505–13. 

Metz, S., Donohue, S., and Moore, C. (2012). Spatial Skills: A focus on gender and engineering. In B.Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources. Retrieved from http://www.engr.psu.edu/awe/ARPAbstracts/MetzSpatialSkills/ARP_SpatialSkills_Abstract.pdf

National Science Board. (2010). Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing our Nation’s Human Capital. Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2010/nsb1033.pdf. 

Newcombe, N. (2006). A plea for spatial literacy. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Onyancha, R., Towle, E., & Kinsey, B. (2007). Improvement of spatial ability using innovative tools: Alternative view screen and physical model rotator. Proceedings of the 114th ASEE Conference and Exposition.

Onyancha, R. M., Derov, M., & Kinsey, B. L. (2009). Improvements in spatial ability as a result of targeted training and computer-aided design software use: Analyses of object geometries and rotation types. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(2), 157–67.

Rafi, A., & Samsudin, K.A. (2007). The relationships of spatial experience, previous mathematics achievement, and gender with perceived ability in learning engineering drawing. Journal of Technology Education, 18(2), 53-67.

Sorby, S. (2009). Educational Research in Developing 3-D Spatial Skills for Engineering Students. International Journal of Science Education. (31)3.

Sorby, S. A., & Baartmans, B. J. (2000). The development and assessment of a course for enhancing the 3-D spatial visualization skills of first year engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education,(89)3, 301–7.

Sorby, S. A., Drummer, T., Hungwe, K., Parolini, L., & Molzan, R. (2006). Preparing for engineering studies: Improving the 3D spatial skills of K–12 students. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Engineering Education, T3E-6–T3E-10.

Sorby, S. A., & Veurink, N. (2010). Are the visualization skills of first-year engineering students changing? Proceedings of the 117th ASEE Conference and Exposition.

Terlecki, M., Newcombe, N., & Little, M. (2008). Durable and generalized effects of spatial experience on mental rotation: Gender differences in growth patterns. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7), 996–1013.

Towle, E., Mann, J., Kinsey, B., O’Brien, E., Bauer, C., & Champoux, R. (2005). Assessing the self-­efficacy and spatial ability of engineering students from multiple disciplines. ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, 31(3), 459-80.

 

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