Research by David Uttal Underscores Impact of Training in Spatial Thinking

Research by David Uttal Underscores Impact of Training in Spatial Thinking

Spatial skills

Training is effective for improving spatial skills, Northwestern researchers found through the first comprehensive analysis of credible studies on such interventions.

Improving spatial skills is important because children who do well at spatial tasks such as reading maps and assembling puzzles are likely to achieve highly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Professor David Uttal and fellow researchers Nathaniel Meadow, Elizabeth Tipton, Linda Hand, Alison Alden and Christopher Warren of Northwestern University and Nora Newcombe of Temple University reviewed 217 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking. Their analysis is the first all-encompassing study of how and how much training influences spatial thinking.

The study clearly reveals that spatial skills are malleable and that spatial training transfers to other fields. Although recent research confirms that spatial abilities uniquely predict STEM achievement, there has been some debate about whether spatial skills can be improved — and whether such improvement lasts or transfers to new tasks. The new meta-analysis answers all those questions in the affirmative.

“Our hope is that our findings on how to train spatial skills will ultimately lead to highly effective ways to improve STEM performance,” says Uttal, the principal investigator on the study.

One example of the type of training that can increase spatial abilities is having physics students use three-dimensional representations. Video game playing also increases spatial skills. “Perhaps the most important finding from this meta-analysis is that several different forms of training can be highly successful,” the authors say.

The study considers gender and age differences in relation to spatial thinking. In males and females, adults and children alike, even a small amount of training can improve spatial reasoning and have long-lasting impact.

“Spatial training programs therefore may play a particularly important role in the education and enhancement of spatial skills and mathematics and science more generally,” the researchers say. Spatial training may be especially effective for young children and for students with low spatial skills.

The results of this study are being published in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association. The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/2/13