Paper No. 8
Presentation Time: 9:45 AM
GEOSCIENCE STUDENTS' SPATIAL COGNITION: RESULTS FROM MULTI-INSTITUTIONAL CLASSROOM STUDIES
Spatial thinking skills are critical to success in many subdisciplines of the geosciences (and beyond). Students’ spatial skills were tested in geoscience courses at three institutions (the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carleton College, and the University of St. Thomas) over a two year period, using several different measures. Various combinations of standard psychometric tests, including tests of mental rotation and disembedding, and newly developed assessments of geoscience-related spatial skills, including multiple choice measures of penetrative thinking, mental rotation of geologic block diagrams, and sequential reasoning about spatial transformations, were administered to students in introductory geology courses, mineralogy, sedimentology and stratigraphy, hydrogeology, structural geology, and tectonics. The goals were to determine what spatial skill levels students bring to geoscience classes, what the different components of spatial thinking are and to what extent they correlated (e.g., if a student excels at mental rotation, will she excel at all spatial tasks?), and how instruction in geoscience courses affects students’ spatial skills.
Students’ skills vary from excellent to very poor on measures of several different spatial thinking skills, both in introductory and upper level undergraduate geology courses. Furthermore, there are a number of facets to spatial thinking, and an individual student may (for example) excel at mental rotation but be unable to imagine what a slice through the interior of an object would look like. In general, students’ spatial skills improve only slightly over one term, in both introductory and advanced classes. There is a measurable, statistically significant difference between the average spatial skills of introductory geoscience students at the end of the term and those of upper-level geoscience students at the beginning of the term. This suggests that spatial thinking ability may be one of the factors by which students self-select to continue taking courses in geoscience programs.