Multimodal Training Improves Spatial Reasoning Skills in Female College Students


Spatial reasoning is a valuable cognitive tool which enables navigation of the body in relation to other objects in space, permits deconstruction of dimensional forms, allows reconstruction of two-dimensional representations into three-dimensional objects, and facilitates diagramming of processes or concepts. A considerable body of work has suggested that these skills are particularly important for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (reviewed in Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, Journal of Educational Psychology 101: 817-835, 2009); however, much of this data has been derived from studies with relatively narrow populations in terms of participant sex, race, academic ability, or socioeconomic condition and very few of these studies have attempted spatial reasoning training from a diversity of academic disciplines. The current study was designed to assess the influence of a week-long, academically interdisciplinary spatial reasoning Bootcamp on a small, diverse group of female participants’ spatial reasoning abilities and to determine if Participants’ subsequent performance in organic chemistry and physics coursework differed from that of a Match (non-Bootcamp participant) Control group. The data indicate that Bootcamp participants significantly improved their scores in some commonly accepted measures of spatial reasoning abilities and that Bootcamp participants’ final grades in organic chemistry, but not physics, were significantly higher than the Match Control group. The data suggest that intentional programming to improve student spatial reasoning abilities can influence short-term spatial skill performance that may translate into improved success in certain types of subsequent coursework.

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We are grateful to the NSF for the support of this work and for the support and guidance of Wesleyan President and NSF S-STEM Co-PI, Dr.Vivia Fowler, throughout the duration of this project. Our additional thanks to former Wesleyan President Ruth Knox for her support of this initiative.


This study was supported, in part, by National Science Foundation S-STEM 1060398 (to HB-T). Funding for this work was also provided by Wesleyan College.

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Correspondence to Holly Boettger-Tong.

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This study is educational research of minimal risk, with all responses coded to maintain anonymity; the study was reviewed and deemed exempt by the Wesleyan college Institutional Review Board.

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All Participants in the Bootcamp signed informed consent forms for their participation; no personally identifying information is presented herein and all student responses were coded to maintain anonymity.

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Sample Items from Tests of Spatial Reasoning

The Revised Perdue Spatial Visualizations Test (PSVT:R), as revised by Yoon (2011) and referenced in Maeda and Yoon (2013) requires test-takers to view a pair of objects that represent the same shape but with some degree of rotation from one to the next. They then are presented with a new object and select from five multiple choice options the response that represents the new object if it had been rotated in a similar fashion to the original pair (see Fig. 3). There were a total of 30 items; Bootcamp participants’ scores from pre-test to post-test were gathered.

Revised Perdue Spatial Visualization Test Sample Item

Fig. 3

Sample figure from the Revised Perdue Spatial Visualization Test. In the figure above, participants were asked to choose the analogous image rotated in the same direction as the exemplar

The Santa Barbara Solids Test was administered according to the procedure described in Cohen and Hegarty 2007. Although the original measure contains 30 items, one was removed from use due to a printing error. The remaining 29 items required Bootcamp participants to view a series of varied geometric structures that were intersected by cutting planes (see Fig. 4). The structures were described as being either Simple (basic geometric solids), Joined (two solids attached together), or Embedded (one solid inserted into another one). Participants were asked to view the structure and identify, from four multiple choice options, the relevant cross section. The mean number of correct answers from the pre-test and post-test were compared.

Santa Barbara Solids Test Example

Fig. 4

Sample figure from the Santa Barbara Solids Test. In the figure above, participants were asked to view the structure and then choose the letter which correctly identifies the cross section

The Santa Barbara Perspective Taking Spatial Orientation Test, created by Kozhevnikov and Hegarty (2001), presents a configuration of seven objects located on a piece of paper (see Fig. 5 ). Participants are then asked to locate the object in relationship to a fixed point (e.g., “imagine you are standing near the stop sign facing the house; point to the traffic light”). The answer sheet for each test item showed a picture of a circle, in which the imagined station point was drawn in the center; the task was to draw in an arrow from the midpoint of the circle indicating the direction to the target object without any physical rotation of the initial stimulus or answer sheet. Although the initial scale was designed to be scored in a more complex fashion, for the purposes of the present study, participants’ mean and median degrees from the correct location was determined pre-Bootcamp and compared with post-Bootcamp answers. For this measure, lower scores indicate greater accuracy, as they show a participant who is fewer degrees away from the correct position of the arrow.

Santa Barbara Perspective Taking Spatial Orientation Test Example

Given the image below, imagine you are standing near the stop sign facing the house; point to the traffic light.

Fig. 5

Sample item from the Santa Barbara Perspective Taking Spatial Orientation test. Participants were required to orient themselves as directed by the prompt and then indicate the relation of an object in degrees (on a circle) to this location

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Applebee, D., Bennett-Day, B., Ferrari, J. et al. Multimodal Training Improves Spatial Reasoning Skills in Female College Students. J Sci Educ Technol (2021).

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  • Spatial reasoning training
  • STEM coursework
  • Diverse
  • Female college students