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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Spatial Training Works and May Enhance STEM Learning

Northwestern University posted a story about research led by its own Professor David Uttal confirming that training in spatial concepts does indeed raise spatial thinking and reasoning abilities. The meta analysis (a study of studies) reviewed 217 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking. The upshots:
  • Yes, training will improve spatial skills.
  • Yes, that improvement will last and transfers to other skills, including perhaps STEM subjects.
Great news! Still aspects of the research, or perhaps just the news story, do give me pause.

Are we talking about training?

The term used throughout the article to describe the intervention is training. Maybe I don't know its proper meaning in this context. I do know we do not do training in GIS at at Penn State. We don't even teach software (something I would describe as training). 

Do we train K-12 students? Do we train them to read? To do fractions? Perhaps we do.

The few examples of the spatial training offered in the article include physics students using 3D representations (not physical models only, I guess) and the use of video games. The good news here is that more than one type of intervention can work. But is it really training?

What interventions work "best"?

I'm sure this is already being researched or planned for the future, but which of the various interventions show the most return? Do different ones work better at different ages? For different types of learners? For different genders? Will adults get as much out of spatial puzzles as five year old Max and Theo do at school?

How do we use these results?

With the current focus on STEM education and the never-say-die efforts to promote geography in he U.S., who will take the lead on translating this research into action or policy? Whose job is that? Do the findings necessarily make geography and GIS key tools in advancement of spatial skills? 


  1. You recognize many of the important questions, Adena. There are definitely still gaps in our understanding about the connections between the "training" done for most of these studies (practicing with mental rotation tests, for example) and what someone does while using GIS.

    I did come across this video yesterday about a GIS ed project in Germany. But they failed to share their results - whether the GIS work made any difference on those psychometric tests!


  2. Also, the answers to many of your questions can be found if you read the literature published through the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center - http://spatiallearning.org/, or as much as been documented at this point.

    What "training" works best? It depends on what skill you're trying to improve. For many of them (mental rotation, visualization), playing Tetris, again and again, is the answer.

    Plus these materials are well-regarded too. http://www.engageengineering.org/?page=107

    And this assortment of tests and info, http://www.iwitts.org/proven-practices/retention-sub-topics/spatial-reasoning.


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