Can’t figure your way from a map to reality? All is not lost. Training is effective for improving spatial skills, Northwestern University researchers found through the first comprehensive analysis of studies of such interventions.

Improving spatial skills is important because children who do well at spatial tasks such as reading maps and assembling puzzles are likely to achieve highly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The study considers gender and age differences in relation to spatial thinking. In males and females, adults and children alike, even a small amount of training can improve spatial reasoning and have long-lasting impact.

David Uttal, lead author of the study and a professor of psychology and education at Northwestern, along with his co-authors, reviewed more than 200 research studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking. Their analysis is the first all-encompassing study of how training influences spatial thinking and how much.

The study reveals that spatial skills are malleable and that spatial training transfers to other fields. Although recent research confirms that spatial abilities uniquely predict STEM achievement, there has been some debate about whether spatial skills can be improved — and whether such improvement lasts or transfers to new tasks. The new meta-analysis answers all those questions in the affirmative.

“Our hope is that our findings on how to teach spatial skills will ultimately lead to highly effective ways to improve STEM performance,” Uttal said.

One example of the type of training that can increase spatial abilities is having physics students use three-dimensional representations. Video game playing also increases spatial skills. “Perhaps the most important finding from this meta-analysis is that several different forms of training can be highly successful,” the authors wrote in the study.

“Spatial training programs therefore may play a particularly important role in the education and enhancement of spatial skills and mathematics and science more generally,” the researchers said. Spatial training may be especially effective for young children and for students with low spatial skills. Moreover, spatial training could help to increase the number of children, particularly girls, who take STEM courses and go on to STEM careers.

“The Malleability of Spatial Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Training Studies” was published in June in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association. The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center. The study’s co-authors are Nathaniel Meadow, Elizabeth Tipton, Linda Hand, Alison Alden and Christopher Warren of Northwestern, and Nora Newcombe of Temple University.

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