AWE Literature Overview

Visual Spatial Skills -- Abstract

Visual spatial skills are essential for success in engineering. Education, experience, and testing environments have been shown to improve visual spatial skills and have improved retention of engineering students. Although some may speculate that women’s supposed inability to perform visual spatial tasks is responsible for their disproportionate representation in engineering, actual gender differences on spatial ability tests are small and appear only on certain tests. Consider the following:

  • In general, males perform better on tests of spatial perception and mental rotation, and men and women perform equally well on spatial visualization tests (Linn and Peterson, 1985).

  • Evidence is inconsistent regarding the connection between visual-spatial test scores and engineering course grades (Peters et al. 1994; Sorby and Baartman, 2000; Hisi, Linn and Bell, 1997).

  • Emphasis on the tested abilities as useful for male-stereotyped occupations produces a large gender gap in scores. If the abilities are instead described in relation to female-stereotyped occupations, the gender gap is reduced to a small and insignificant difference (Sharps, Price, & Williams, 1994).

  • Educational programs improve women’s test scores in greater proportion than for their male peers (Baartmans & Sorby, 1996).

Considering that gender differences in scores are small when they exist, are related to stereotype-threat, can be improved with education, and are inconsistently related to actual engineering performance, it is unlikely that women have a deficit in visual spatial skills in proportion to their underrepresentation in engineering. It is clear, however, that providing opportunities for all students to learn and practice their visual spatial skills in an encouraging environment leads to greater educational success

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Funded by The National Science Foundation (HRD 0120642 and HRD 0607081)