Cognitive Processing

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 129–142 | Cite as

When do spatial abilities support student comprehension of STEM visualizations?

  • Scott R. Hinze
  • Vickie M. Williamson
  • Mary Jane Shultz
  • Kenneth C. Williamson
  • Ghislain Deslongchamps
  • David N. Rapp
Research Report


Spatial visualization abilities are positively related to performance on science, technology, engineering, and math tasks, but this relationship is influenced by task demands and learner strategies. In two studies, we illustrate these interactions by demonstrating situations in which greater spatial ability leads to problematic performance. In Study 1, chemistry students observed and explained sets of simultaneously presented displays depicting chemical phenomena at macroscopic and particulate levels of representation. Prior to viewing, the students were asked to make predictions at the macroscopic level. Eye movement analyses revealed that greater spatial ability was associated with greater focus on the prediction-relevant macroscopic level. Unfortunately, that restricted focus was also associated with lower-quality explanations of the phenomena. In Study 2, we presented the same displays but manipulated whether participants were asked to make predictions prior to viewing. Spatial ability was again associated with restricted focus, but only for students who completed the prediction task. Eliminating the prediction task encouraged attempts to integrate the displays that related positively to performance, especially for participants with high spatial ability. Spatial abilities can be recruited in effective or ineffective ways depending on alignments between the demands of a task and the approaches individuals adopt for completing that task.


Spatial cognition STEM Visualizations Learning 



This work was funded by REESE grants #0907780 and #0908130 from the National Science Foundation to PIs Dr. David N. Rapp and Dr. Mary Jane Shultz.


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott R. Hinze
    • 1
  • Vickie M. Williamson
    • 2
  • Mary Jane Shultz
    • 3
  • Kenneth C. Williamson
    • 4
  • Ghislain Deslongchamps
    • 5
  • David N. Rapp
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychology and School of Education & Social PolicyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  3. 3.Department of ChemistryTufts UniversityMedfordUSA
  4. 4.Department of Construction ScienceTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  5. 5.Department of ChemistryUniversity of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada

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