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Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Spatial ability is significantly related to performance in engineering education. Problem solving, an activity that is highly relevant to engineering education, has been linked to spatial ability.


To what extent is spatial ability related to problem solving among engineering students and how do approaches to problem representation and solution vary with spatial ability level?


Three instruments – a spatial ability test, word math problems and accompanying core math competency questions – were administered to two samples of first year engineering students in two different countries. Data were analyzed at the test level to evaluate the relationship of spatial ability to problem representation and solution. A detailed item level analysis was conducted to compare approach to problem solving with spatial ability level.


Spatial ability was found to be significantly related to problem solving but not to the core competency questions indicating the relationship was limited to the problem representation phase and not the solution phase. Key aspects of representation were identified for each problem to reveal a more pronounced relationship between representation and spatial ability than between problem solving (representation and solution) and spatial ability.


Problem solving can be considered to consist of two cognitively distinct phases: spatial ability is significantly related to problem representation but not to problem solution. Hence, this study shows that spatial ability plays a key role in engineering education that is not limited to visualization of imagery but extends to thinking during problem solving, a non-routine activity that requires mental representation.



National Science Foundation