Spatial Cognition

Spatial Thinking in Geospatial Semester (GSS)

  • Geospatial technologies, such as geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and GPS have been used in a variety of educational settings to help improve student learning. Many have examined gains in student content understanding or offer anecdotal evidence of effectiveness, but few studies look at the influence of using geospatial technologies on students’ spatial thinking skills. Our aim is to investigate the impact of the GSS on students’ higher-level spatial reasoning.

How Sketches Reflect Spatial and Casual Scientific Knowledge

Benjamin D. JeeDavid H. UttalDedre GentnerKenneth ForbusBrad SagemanNadeeka Dias

  • Geoscience requires learning about complex causal processes that occur over large ranges of space and time. How do geoscientists represent their knowledge of geologic processes? We examined this question using two distinct methods. Participants with differing levels of geoscience experience were presented with a series of geoscience-related and unrelated diagrams, and asked to (a) provide written descriptions of the diagrams, and (b) sketch the diagrams using the CogSketch software (Forbus et al., 2008). CogSketch records both the spatial-relational structure of the sketches and the process through which sketches were constructed, affording an examination of the convergence and uniqueness of participants’ written descriptions and their sketches. If geoscience experience leads to the development of causal mental models for geological processes, then more experienced students’ descriptions and sketches should reflect the diagrams’ causal sequence. We discuss our results with respect to CogSketch as a general measure of causal knowledge.

The Role of Alignment in Perceptual Learning of a Geoscience Concept

Benjamin D. JeeDavid H. UttalDedre GentnerBrad Sageman, Cathy Manduca, Nadeeka Dias

  • Geoscience education involves learning to identify geological structures in real-world images. This learning may be facilitated by viewing similar but contrasting schematic images, where one image contains the structure and the other does not (Jee et al., 2010). Highly similar items are easier to align structurally, thereby highlighting their common relational structure and any alignable differences  (readily comparable but differing features; e.g., Gentner et al., 2007). The present research explored the basis of this learning benefit, and whether learning can be further enhanced by viewing realistic, contrasting images in addition to schematic, contrasting images. The focus of the study was the geological structure of a fault — a fracture in rock along which there has been displacement. Participants read a brief instructional text about faults that included either (1) a single block diagram of a fault, (2) a pair of similar, contrasting block diagrams, one with a fault an one with a fracture, or (3) a pair of similar, contrasting block diagrams and a pair of contrasting realistic diagrams. Following the instructions, the participants completed a fault identification task, in which they saw a series of photos. On each trial the participant had to respond whether each photo contained a fault, and, if so, where the fault was located. Participants who saw only a single block diagram performed poorly, due mainly to their relatively high mean rate of false alarms. This suggests that viewing a pair of contrasting diagrams served to clarify the important distinction between the appearance of faults and fractures. Also, participants who saw both the block diagrams and realistic diagrams tended to perform the best. This suggests that viewing realistic images supported learning of features that were relevant to fault identification but are not present in schematic diagrams.

Drawing on Experience: Use of Sketching to Evaluate Knowledge of Spatial Scientific Concepts — full paper

Benjamin D. Jee, Dedre Gentner, Kenneth Forbus,Brad Sageman, and David H. Uttal

  • How does learning affect the structure of domain knowledge? This question is difficult to address in domains such as geoscience, where spatial knowledge is paramount. We explore a new platform, called CogSketch, for collecting and analyzing participants’ sketches as a means of discerning their spatial knowledge. Participants with differing levels of experience in the geosciences produced sketches of geologic structures and processes on a tablet computer running CogSketch software. This allowed for the analysis of not only the spatial-relational structure of the sketches, but also the process through which the sketches were constructed.

Understanding and Enhancing Visualizations: Two models of collaboration between earth science and cognitive science

David Rapp and David H. Uttal

  • Geoscience visualizations are commonplace; they appear in television news programs, classroom lectures, conference presentations, and internet hypermedia. But to what degree do individuals who view such visualizations actually learn from them, and if so, why? As visualizations become more commonplace in school, laboratory, and entertainment settings, there has been a concurrent interest in considering the effectiveness of such presentations. How can we build effective collaborations that address pedagogical questions in the earth sciences while also informing theories about the cognitive processes that underlie visualization experiences? In this chapter, we contend that only through directed, collaborative projects between earth scientists and cognitive scientists will significant advances in visualization research take place. We describe two specific models of such collaboration, the advisory model and the reciprocal model, and argue that a reciprocal model presents a more effective framework for addressing important questions about the nature of visualization experiences. Such a model will inform both the design of effective visualizations for teaching complex geoscience topics, as well as provide insight into the processes that underlie learning from visualizations.

Are Remote Labs Worth the Cost? Insights From a Study of Student Perceptions of Remote Labs

Kemi Jona, Ricarose Roque, Julia Skolnik, David H.Uttal and David Rapp

  • Remote online laboratories enable students to conduct scientific investigations using real experimental equipment. However, scaling up remote labs may require significant costs in purchasing and maintaining expensive equipment compared to scaling simulated labs. While these costs are a consequence of using physical equipment, we argue that there are unique educational advantages to remote labs. This paper presents the results of a preliminary study of student perceptions of a remote lab in comparison to an identical lab experience with simulated data. The findings reveal several intriguing themes that highlight the pedagogical value of remote laboratories. In addition, we provide recommendations for the design and pedagogy of online laboratory experiences based on our findings.

Analogical Thinking in Geoscience Education

Benjamin D. JeeDavid H. UttalDedre Gentner, Cathy Manduca, Basil Tikoff, and Brad Sageman — full paper

  • Geoscience instructors and textbooks rely on analogy for teaching students a wide range of content, from the most basic concepts to highly complicated systems. The goal of this paper is to connect educational and cognitive science research on analogical thinking with issues of geoscience instruction. Analogies convey that the same basic relationships hold in two different examples. In cognitive science, analogical comparison is understood as the process by which a person processes an analogy. We use a cognitive framework for analogy to discuss what makes an effective analogy, the various forms of analogical comparison used in instruction, and the ways that analogical thinking can be supported. Challenges and limitations in using analogy are also discussed, along with suggestions about how these limitations can be addressed to better guide instruction. We end with recommendations about the use of analogy for instruction, and for future research on analogy as it relates to geoscience learning.

Middle School Math and Achievement and Spatial Skills

In Collaboration with Sheryl Sorby and others

  • This project involves an intervention designed to develop spatial skills.  Seventh grade teachers are assigned a control or experimental condition and asked to teach business as usual or a new curriculum designed for the study. We aim to investigate a number of questions on the immediate effects of the intervention as well as a year and two years following the intervention. We are interested in the validity of the curriculum in improving spatial skills relative to the control as well as if this improvement could enhance mathematics performance both in seventh grade and in the years following. We also look at whether the intervention enhances students’ motivation and confidence regarding their ability to perform well in mathematics.


Pointing Out the Role of Maps and Gestures in Spatial Development

Megan Sauter, Ellen Reynolds, David H. Uttal, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Susan Levine

  • Using maps influences how we think about space (Uttal & Wellman, 1989; Liben, 1999; Uttal, 2000) by allowing us to see, and to think about, spatial relations that would be difficult to acquire from direct experience. Maps can also influence the way we communicate spatial information. Here we investigated the influence of using a map on the development of spatial thinking and spatial communication. We asked children to communicate locations that they had learned from a map or from navigation alone. Interestingly, the influence of maps first appears in the gestures of children when communicating space and not in their speech. We suggest that this finding may reflect that maps and gesture share similarities in terms of communicating spatial relations in a visual, integrated manner.

Maps in a Snap: Can comparison facilitate preschoolers’ understanding of maps?

Lei Yuan, Megan Sauter, David H. Uttal, Dedre Gentner

  • Maps are particularly important for the representation of spatial information; maps often highlight spatial information that can be difficult, if not impossible, to acquire through direct experience navigating in the world. Young children often have difficulty identifying the correspondences between elements on a map or model and the same elements in the space (Deloache, Uttal, & Pierroutsakos 1989). In the current study, we examine whether comparison can facilitate children’s understanding of map-space correspondence. Comparison is a powerful learning mechanism that highlights relational commonalities (Gentner, 2003). Preschoolers are shown a model and a map of a neighborhood. In the comparison condition, the experimenter explicitly highlights the commonalities among the relations between the map and model. In the control condition, the experimenter describes the elements in the map and the model but does not highlight the commonalities between the two. Our results show that the children who learn through comparison show an improved understanding of map-space correspondence following this training.

Learning Fine-Grained and Category Information in Navigable Real-World Space — full paper

David H. Uttal, Alinda Friedman, Linda L. Hand, and Christopher Warren

  • Spatial judgments are affected both by fine-grained and categorical knowledge. We investigated whether, and how, the two forms of knowledge are learned in real-world, navigable space as well as the time course of learning each type of knowledge. Participants were Northwestern University undergraduates who estimated the locations of buildings and other landmarks on campus. The Northwestern campus is roughly divided into three regions whose borders are not easy to discern either from a map or by navigation. Nevertheless, students often refer to these regions linguistically and use them when making housing decisions, choosing classes, etc. We found that knowledge of both the fine-grained configuration of locations and the regional distinctions increased with time. However, regional influences on judgments occurred later in students’ time on campus. Consequently, computed distances across the nonexistent border between north and south campus locations became more biased with time. The results have implications for understanding how spatial representations develop in navigable environments.

The Role of Parental Instruction in the Comprehension of a Spatial Representation

Maria Del Rosario Maita and Olga Peralta

The focus of this research is to study the impact of parental instruction in the early comprehension of a spatial representation, a map. Maps are important tools for thought, they allow us to see and think about multiples relationships between different spatial locations (Uttal, 2000; 2006; Davies y Uttal, 2007). In that sense, maps highlight the role of relational information that is at the core of spatial reasoning. One hypothesis that underlies this research is that the kinds and opportunities of interacting in spatial tasks, as well as the spatial instruction parents give to their children, may have an influence on children’s spatial reasoning. To address this question, first, we explore the kind of information parents employ when they guide their children in a spatial task (the child must locate an object in a room using a map). Second, we examine whether parents exhibit different teaching styles, and if so, whether these differences are associated with socioeconomic characteristics. To study the socioeconomic status we employ a version of the HOME inventory (Caldwell & Bradley, 1984). Third, we study whether these potentially different teaching styles have an influence on children’s spatial independent performance. Finally, considering the large evidence about sex differences in spatial abilities, with males outperforming females, we also explore whether these differences are presented in parent’s instruction, and if so, whether they have an impact on children’s spatial reasoning.