Asee peer logo

Visual Spatial Ability In First Year Engineering Students: A Useful Retention Variable?

Download Paper |


2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Emerging Trends in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1407.1 - 9.1407.13

Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Lili Zhao

author page

Chris Brus

author page

Julie Jessop

Download Paper |

NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1793

Visual-Spatial Ability in First-Year Engineering Students: A Useful Retention Variable? Chris Brus, Lili Zhao, and Julie Jessop University of Iowa

Background and Significance

A longstanding and robust performance gap on tests of visual-spatial ability has been well documented in the cognitive psychology literature, with women, in general, having less well- developed skills, especially on tasks of mental rotation.1,2,3 Visual-spatial ability, also called spatial visualization, is defined by McGee as the ability to mentally rotate, twist, or invert pictorially presented visual stimuli.4 The ability to discern relationships between shapes and objects has also been found to be an important factor for, if not predictive of, success in disciplines that involve the manipulation of objects in spatial environments such as engineering, chemistry, and computer science.5,6,7 According to Cooper and Mumaw,8 the spatial aptitude literature is quite clear in showing that a broadly defined spatial factor exists independently of verbal and quantitative factors and that this spatial factor is more effective than other measures of intelligence in predicting success in certain academic and industrial areas.

The debate surrounding the underlying reasons for this gap is rigorous and ongoing, generally revolving around the implications of a biologically-based phenomenon (nature) vs. a psychosocial one (nurture). This debate is not unimportant. Researchers who believe that differences in cognition are primarily biologically-based9,10,11 also tend to believe that much of the differential we see in societal outcomes can only be somewhat moderated by intervention. This argument may seem especially relevant for visual-spatial ability. While there is evidence that the gender gap in verbal and computational ability has been decreasing over time,12 it has been more difficult to document any significant narrowing of the gender gap in visual-spatial ability.

Researchers on the other side of the debate place responsibility for sex differences in cognition squarely in the nurture camp, emphasizing the role of differential experience as a critical variable in an individual’s facility with spatial visualization tasks.13 Secondarily, and most importantly for those of us involved in developing curricular interventions to increase the retention of women in the engineering pipeline, there is ample evidence that performance on visual-spatial tests, such as the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Visualization of Rotations (PVST:R),14 can be greatly enhanced by training.15,16,17,18

With the ever increasing utilization of computer graphics programs, such as CAD, in the undergraduate engineering curriculum, it is critical that the reported gender gap in visual-spatial ability be further characterized to understand its effect on the undergraduate engineering population.19,20 In particular, we are interested in whether differential skill levels of visual-spatial ability exert enough pressure on young women in undergraduate engineering programs to be a factor in their rates of attrition, which are significantly higher than their male counterparts.21

Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

Zhao, L., & Brus, C., & Jessop, J. (2004, June), Visual Spatial Ability In First Year Engineering Students: A Useful Retention Variable? Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2004 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015