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Using pupil dilation to measure cognitive load during a spatial skills test

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

ERM: Let's Continue the Conversation about Tests! Part 2

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Paper Authors


Gibin Raju University of Cincinnati

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Gibin Raju is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Engineering Education at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Cincinnati. His research interests are focused on Spatial Visualization, DEI in Engineering, ID/ODD, STEM accessibility issues, workforce development, STEM education, and education practices.

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Sheryl Sorby University of Cincinnati


Grace Panther University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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Grace Panther is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She has experience conducting workshops at engineering education conferences and has been a guest editor for a special issue of European Journal of Engineering Education on inclusive learning environments. Her research areas include spatial visualization, material development, faculty discourses on gender, and defining knowledge domains of students and practicing engineers.

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Clodagh Reid Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest

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PhD in spatial ability and problem solving in engineering education from Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. Graduated in 2017 from the University of Limerick with a B. Tech (Ed.). Member of Technology Education Research Group (TERG).

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Luke Fisher University of Cincinnati

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First year computer engineering student at the University of Cincinnati

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This full research paper explores how spatial skills and cognitive load interact. Spatial skills allow a person to manipulate and rotate any three-dimensional object. Studies have reported that spatial skills can be a reliable predictor of problem-solving success in engineers. Despite the comprehensive literature on spatial skills, the cognitive load experienced while solving spatial items is not fully understood. Using an eye tracking device, researchers explored how the cognitive load experienced by a high spatial visualizer differs when compared to a low spatial visualizer in solving spatial tasks. Pupil dilation was recorded as a measure of cognitive load via the eye-tracking device as studies have shown that cognitive load causes a task-evoked pupillary response. Previous studies have shown that there is a linear increase in pupil dilation as cognitive load increases.

The current study was conducted in two phases. The first phase recruited 143 undergraduate engineering students from two large, public, R1 institutions. Participants completed three spatial tests. Based on their performance on the spatial tests, 35 participants were selected for the second phase of testing. While the first phase was conducted over a web conference platform, participants came in person for the second phase so that they could wear an eye-tracking device while completing further tasks. The tasks included tests in spatial and verbal analogy and solving six engineering mechanics problems with increasing levels of difficulty. Data related to gender, race, and ethnicity were collected to understand if there were differences by demographic group. The larger study aims to examine several factors, including cognitive load, for high and low spatial visualizers while solving the six mechanics problems. In this paper, analysis results from the spatial testing component of the study will be presented.

Raju, G., & Sorby, S., & Panther, G., & Reid, C., & Fisher, L. (2022, August), Using pupil dilation to measure cognitive load during a spatial skills test Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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