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The Use of Qualitative Methods in Spatial Research

woman posing against a wall

Kay Ramey, Postdoctoral Fellow, Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University

Studies on spatial reasoning often utilize quantitative methods, such as psychometric tests, to measure spatial skills. Quantitative spatial tests are at times restrictive, because they only measure internal cognitive processes and tend to focus on a limited range of spatial skills (e.g., intrinsic dynamic spatial skills, such as mental rotation).  Further, pre- and post- tests alone, would indicate if spatial learning has occurred in the cognitive sense, but does not explain how that learning happened within a specific context, such as a maker space. This leaves spatial research with many gaps in understanding the impact of social and material context and the types of spatial reasoning that occur within different environments.

A recent paper by Kay Ramey, a graduate and current post-doc of Northwestern’s Learning Sciences Program, uses cognitive ethnographic methods and interaction analysis to study how students interact with an in-school maker space program, FUSE Studios (Ramey, Stevens, & Uttal, accepted). This program is an interest-driven, choice-based learning environment, where the emphasis is on collaborative, student-led sensemaking with the digital and physical tools and resources available, rather than teacher-led instruction

Ramey’s research is primarily concerned with questions about how students interact with technology tools and one another, to complete one of the thirty STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) challenges provided by FUSE. Some challenges required the use of specialized tools, such as 3D printers and computer aided design software, which inherently rely on spatial concepts to be able to use them. The real-world nature of the study allowed researchers to gauge if students understood the spatial concepts necessary to manipulate these tools and to see how different tools and representations elicited different types of spatial reasoning.

Qualitative coding of the interactions within the maker space (including talk, gesture, and physical and digital object manipulation) also allowed the researchers to capture a greater range of spatial thinking and learning than would typically be captured by a psychometric test.  This included capturing types of cognitive spatial processes less frequently assessed on psychometric tests, such as spatial relations between objects, as well as capturing the ways in which spatial reasoning was distributed between individuals, tools, and representations in the environment, rather than taking place solely in the head.

sketch of three students using a 3D printer

A distributed cognitive system produces a 3D scan of a student’s head, for 3D printing (Ramey, Stevens, & Uttal, accepted)

Ramey’s use of qualitative methods opens new avenues for conceptualizing and researching spatial reasoning. Her work poses new questions and opportunities for collaboration between qualitative and quantitative researchers around spatial thinking and learning. It also advances understandings of what and how spatial thinking and learning occur in the context of making activities and maker spaces, as well as how spatial reasoning might support other forms of STEAM thinking and problem solving.  Finally, it provides guidance for educators who want to utilize making activities to support K-12 learners in STEAM learning and spatial skill development.

Ramey’s research was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Educational Psychology, as part of a focused collection on Qualitative Studies of Reasoning and Participation. The paper is titled, “In-FUSE-ing STEAM learning with spatial reasoning: Distributed spatial sensemaking in school-based making activities”. The preprint of the article is available on PsyArXiv. 


Work Cited:

Ramey, K. E., Stevens, R., & Uttal, D. H. (accepted). In-FUSE-ing STEAM learning with spatial reasoning: Distributed spatial sensemaking in school-based making activities. Journal of Educational Psychology.