Spatial Visualization Skills (SVS): Learn More

SVS training increases student persistence.

SVS are critical for success in undergraduate engineering programs and play a particularly important role in engineering graphics courses. Students who struggle within engineering graphics are often vulnerable to transferring out of engineering and into another major. In one study, 80% of students who did poorly in their first engineering graphics course did not persist in engineering but transferred to another major (1). In fact, faculty maintain that engineering graphics should be considered a gateway course because it has such a large impact on student retention (2).

Research has shown that SVS can be learned—and that students who improve their SVS have a higher persistence rate in engineering than those with weak spatial visualization skills who do not improve their skills (1,3).

All schools want to increase the retention and success of their engineering students. Research and practice have shown that proactive spatial testing of first-year and second-year engineering students plus a follow-on spatial course for those with weak skills contributes to the success of engineering students.

  • SVS training programs are low cost programs to implement.
  • SVS training produces results with about 15 hours of instruction. This training can be taught by faculty, graduate students, or even undergraduates.

The resources from ENGAGE help schools (1) assess the spatial visualization skills of their students, and (2) offer a spatial course with proven materials.

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Strong SVS contribute to student retention in STEM.

Research shows that mathematical ability and spatial ability, either alone or in combination, have been associated with STEM expertise and are predictors of who enters a STEM field (4,5). Developing the mathematical and spatial abilities of students is important in expanding the number of students prepared to take on engineering careers.

Michigan Technological University, where nearly 90% of the degrees awarded are in STEM fields, measured the relationship of SVS, spatial training, and student retention in a longitudinal study. Study results show a positive impact on the retention of both men and women.

Students' spatial ability was assessed using the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R). One group of students participated in a SVS training course. A control group did not participate in the training course. The compelling data showed that students who took a SVS training course had higher retention rates than students who did not take the course (6).

In fact, Michigan Tech experienced an 89% graduation rate for women who initially failed the PSVT:R and then took the training course compared with a 68% graduation rate for those who failed the PSVT:R and did not take the course. Graduation rates for women who passed the PSVT:R test and did not take the course were 87%.



For men the trends were similar, though not as dramatic showing a 75% graduation rate for those who initially failed the PSVT:R and then took the training course compared with a 69% graduation rate for those who failed the PSVT:R and did not take the course.  Graduation rates for men who passed the PSVT:R test and did not take the course were 72%.

Similar results were found for retention during the first two years when students are most at risk for leaving engineering.


SVS can be improved with training.

The National Science Board says we should look for students with high spatial ability for our STEM programs (4); however, SVS can be learned.

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.

We don’t encourage students not ready for calculus to enroll in calculus in their first semester. Shouldn’t spatial skills training be available for those who need the help (7)?
— Sheryl Sorby

Spatial testing of freshman undergraduate engineering students can gauge students' 3-D SVS early in the engineering program. Students with weak SVS can improve their skills prior to enrolling in engineering gateway courses that rely on strong 3-D skills. Evidence that SVS can be improved is abundant. A meta-analysis of 217 research studies found that SVS can be improved in all people regardless of age and demographic group (3). 

The charts below represent the pre- and post-test scores for students who initially scored 60% or below on the pre-test and took the spatial training course. Michigan Tech data showed differences in spatial abilities between men and women—and that spatial training made a clear and measurable impact. Student SVS test scores increased significantly following SVS training. This course has been mandatory for all Michigan Tech undergraduate engineering students since 2009.


Increased SVS has another important benefit—it contributes to greater self-efficacy in students' beliefs in their abilities to succeed in courses dependent on strong SVS like engineering graphics (8).

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ENGAGE has worked with over 41 schools to implement spatial testing and training.

See the results from 18 ENGAGE schools that have implemented spatial testing and training in Implementing ENGAGE Strategies to Improve Retention: Focus on Spatial Visualization Skills (slides 54-63).

For more personal feedback, read the testimonials from students and faculty about their experiences with SVS training.

Works Cited

(1) Sorby, S. A. (2009). Educational research in developing 3-D spatial skills for engineering students. International Journal of Science Education, 31(3).

(2) Agogino, A.M. & Hsi, S. (1995). Learning Style Based Innovations to Improve Retention of Female Engineering Students in the Synthesis Coalition. Proceedings Frontiers in Education Conference, 4a2-1 to 4. 

(3) Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: a meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological bulletin, 139(2), 352.

(4) Board, N. S. (2010). Preparing the next generation of stem innovators: Identifying and developing our nation's human capital. Report NSB, 10-33.

(5) Uttal, D., Cohen, C. (2012).  Spatial Thinking and STEM Education: When, Why, and How? Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Chapter 4.

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

(7) Metz, S., Sorby, S. (2013). Implementing ENGAGE Strategies to Improve Retention: Focus on Spatial Skills. ASEE Annual Convention.

(8) Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Note: For more information about Michigan Tech's Spatial Skills program, contact Norma Veurink, Engineering Fundamentals, at

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