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Spatial Skills: Domain General or Domain Specific?

Are spatial skills domain general or domain specific? Can we think of one type of spatial thinking which transcends all STEM fields or is spatial thinking inherently different in each context? These are the questions spatial researchers are asking today and have varying answers to these questions. The paper, “Situating space: using a discipline-focused lens to examine spatial thinking skills by Kinnari Atit and her colleagues, leans towards the side of domain specific.

Atit’s work points to a major problem within spatial research, “No studies have found that training students’ fundamental spatial  skills improves STEM learning and performance at more advanced levels,” such as upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, “So we don’t know how to support spatial thinking for students at these levels.” 

Woman smiling with glasses

Kinnari Atit is a former postdoc at Northwestern and is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside.

Most types of spatial skills require intense specialization since general spatial tests do not capture one’s potential capability in an advanced setting. In past research, Ilyse Resnick found geologists were better at reconstructing fractured words using the Mental Brittle Transformation test than chemists were. The logic being geologists encounter similar scenarios in their line of work. Atit’s Non-Rigid Bending test found similar results

 What’s the point then of general spatial tests? Doing well on spatial tests may not generalize at all. A surgeon who scores well on mental rotation will not necessarily perform better because extraneous variables will effect their performance, such as the difference in anatomy between patients. Those working in spatially related STEM fields also must be prepared for these differences. However, there are also researchers who would argue for the value of generalized spatial testing. Dental schools for example, include spatial testing on admissions tests. It seems general testing can be somewhat equated to standardized tests, such as the SAT or GRE.  

For Atit, the importance of this work lies in the specific questions it has opened up to direct future spatial research, “Only more recently have we started to recognize how complex spatial thinking as it is carried out in STEM disciplines really isSo if we are going to really identify ways to improve students’ outcomes in STEM domains, we need to continue trying to understand what spatial thinking looks like in these disciplines, and how best to bolster these skills in students. 

Kinnari Atit received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple University. After receiving her doctorate, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University and also at Northwestern University. Her areas of research include the intersection of spatial thinking and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. More specifically, her work focuses on understanding the role of spatial thinking skills in STEM domains, and also on identifying how to bolster and develop STEM-relevant skills in students. 


Work Cited:

Atit, K., Uttal, D. H., & Stieff, M. (2020). Situating space: using a discipline-focused lens to examine spatial thinking skills. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 5(1), 1-16.