Spatial skills can be improved through training

October, 2012

A review has concluded that spatial training produces significant improvement, particularly for poorer performers, and that such training could significantly increase STEM achievement.

Spatial abilities have been shown to be important for achievement in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math), but many people have felt that spatial skills are something you’re either born with or not.

In a comprehensive review of 217 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking, researchers concluded that you can indeed improve spatial skills, and that such training can transfer to new tasks. Moreover, not only can the right sort of training improve spatial skill in general, and across age and gender, but the effect of training appears to be stable and long-lasting.

One interesting finding (the researchers themselves considered it perhaps the most important finding) was the diversity in effective training — several different forms of training can be effective in improving spatial abilities. This may have something to do with the breadth covered by the label ‘spatial ability’, which include such skills as:

  • Perceiving objects, paths, or spatial configurations against a background of distracting information;
  • Piecing together objects into more complex configurations, visualizing and mentally transforming objects;
  • Understanding abstract principles, such as horizontal invariance;
  • Visualizing an environment in its entirety from a different position.

The review compared three types of training. Those that used:

  • Video games (24 studies)
  • Semester-long instructional courses on spatial reasoning (42 studies)
  • Practical training, often in a lab, that involved practicing spatial tasks, strategic instruction, or computerized lessons (138 studies).

The first two are examples of indirect training, while the last involves direct training.

On average, taken across the board, training improved performance by well over half a standard deviation when considered on its own, and still almost one half of a standard deviation when compared to a control group. This is a moderately large effect, and it extended to transfer tasks.

It also conceals a wide range, most of which is due to different treatment of control groups. Because the retesting effect is so strong in this domain (if you give any group a spatial test twice, regardless of whether they’ve been training in between the two tests, they’re going to do better on the second test), repeated testing can have a potent effect on the control group. Some ‘filler’ tasks can also inadvertently improve the control group’s performance. All of this will reduce the apparent effect of training. (Not having a control group is even worse, because you don’t know how much of the improvement is due to training and how much to the retesting effect.)

This caution is, of course, more support for the value of practice in developing spatial skills. This is further reinforced by studies that were omitted from the analysis because they would skew the data. Twelve studies found very high effect sizes — more than three times the average size of the remaining studies. All these studies took place in poorly developed countries (those with a Human Development Index above 30 at the time of the study) — Malaysia, Turkey, China, India, and Nigeria. HDI rating was even associated with the benefits of training in a dose-dependent manner — that is, the lower the standard of living, the greater the benefit.

This finding is consistent with other research indicating that lower socioeconomic status is associated with larger responses to training or intervention.

In similar vein, when the review compared 19 studies that specifically selected participants who scored poorly on spatial tests against the other studies, they found that the effects of training were significantly bigger among the selected studies.

In other words, those with poorer spatial skills will benefit most from training. It may be, indeed, that they are poor performers precisely because they have had little practice at these tasks — a question that has been much debated (particularly in the context of gender differences).

It’s worth noting that there was little difference in performance on tests carried out immediately after training ended, within a week, or within a month, indicating promising stability.

A comparison of different types of training did find that some skills were more resistant to training than others, but all types of spatial skill improved. The differences may be because some sorts of skill are harder to teach, and/or because some skills are already more practiced than others.

Given the demonstrated difficulty in increasing working memory capacity through training, it is intriguing to notice one example the researchers cite: experienced video game players have been shown to perform markedly better on some tasks that rely on spatial working memory, such as a task requiring you to estimate the number of dots shown in a brief presentation. Most of us can instantly recognize (‘subitize’) up to five dots without needing to count them, but video game players can typically subitize some 7 or 8. The extent to which this generalizes to a capacity to hold more elements in working memory is one that needs to be explored. Video game players also apparently have a smaller attentional blink, meaning that they can take in more information.

A more specific practical example of training they give is that of a study in which high school physics students were given training in using two- and three-dimensional representations over two class periods. This training significantly improved students’ ability to read a topographical map.

The researchers suggest that the size of training effect could produce a doubling of the number of people with spatial abilities equal to or greater than that of engineers, and that such training might lower the dropout rate among those majoring in STEM subjects.

Apart from that, I would argue many of us who are ‘spatially-challenged’ could benefit from a little training!


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