Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:10 AM
SPATIAL ABILITY, VISUAL REPRESENTATIONS, AND EARTH SCIENCE ACHIEVEMENT
Many geologic tasks include complex two- and three-dimensional reasoning. This type of reasoning is often influenced by an individuals’ spatial ability. Visual representations are also pervasive in the earth sciences and may influence how students as well as scientists problem solve. Therefore, this is an important area of focus for understanding communication and assessment in the geosciences. The present study explores the relationship between spatial ability, visual representations, and earth science achievement. The study included 145 high school students and their performance on the New York State Earth Science Regents Exam. A multiple linear regression showed that in addition to prior knowledge and reading comprehension, spatial ability was a significant predictor of exam performance. For further analyses, the test questions were grouped based on three categories: text-only, novel visuals, and trained visuals. The text-only category included questions that did not contain any external visual representation (although mental representation may or may not have been involved in the actual problem solving process). The novel visual category included questions that contained a visual that appeared on the test and was inferred to be new for the students. The trained visual category included questions that required the Earth Science Reference Tables (ESRT) to solve the question. The ESRT is a set of tables, graphs, and maps that students are permitted to use for the Regents exam and throughout the Earth Science Regents curriculum. We found that spatial ability was a significant predictor of performance on questions that contain novel visuals, but not a predictor of questions with trained visuals. These findings support the hypothesis that spatial ability influences student performance on earth science questions that contain visual representations. Future studies will include qualitative studies of students’ problem solving strategies to triangulate a possible causal relationship between spatial ability and earth science achievement and to evaluate the benefit of spatial training to improve performance on geoscience assessments. Effective communication and assessment in the geosciences should consider how individual differences enhance or impede students’ understanding and performance.