Spatial Thinking and STEM Education. When, Why, and How?

David H. Uttal*, Cheryl A. Cohen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

231 Scopus citations


We explore the relation between spatial thinking and performance and attainment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) domains. Spatial skills strongly predict who will go into STEM fields. But why is this true? We argue that spatial skills serve as a gateway or barrier for entry into STEM fields. We review literature that indicates that psychometrically-assessed spatial abilities predict performance early in STEM learning, but become less predicative as students advance toward expertise. Experts often have mental representations that allow them to solve problems without having to use spatial thinking. For example, an expert chemist who knows a great deal about the structure and behavior of a particular molecule may not need to mentally rotate a representation of this molecule in order to make a decision about it. Novices who have low levels of spatial skills may not be able to advance to the point at which spatial skills become less important. Thus, a program of spatial training might help to increase the number of people who go into STEM fields. We review and give examples of work on spatial training, which show that spatial abilities are quite malleable. Our chapter helps to constrain and specify when and how spatial abilities do (or do not) matter in STEM thinking and learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-181
Number of pages35
JournalPsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
StatePublished - May 10 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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