Visual chunking as a strategy for spatial thinking in STEM

Mike Stieff*, Stephanie Werner, Dane DeSutter, Steve Franconeri, Mary Hegarty

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Working memory capacity is known to predict the performance of novices and experts on a variety of tasks found in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). A common feature of STEM tasks is that they require the problem solver to encode and transform complex spatial information depicted in disciplinary representations that seemingly exceed the known capacity limits of visuospatial working memory. Understanding these limits and how visuospatial information is encoded and transformed differently by STEM learners presents new avenues for addressing the challenges students face while navigating STEM classes and degree programs. Here, we describe two studies that explore student accuracy at detecting color changes in visual stimuli from the discipline of chemistry. We demonstrate that both naive and novice chemistry students’ encoding of visuospatial information is affected by how information is visually structured in “chunks” prevalent across chemistry representations. In both studies we show that students are more accurate at detecting color changes within chemistry-relevant chunks compared to changes that occur outside of them, but performance was not affected by the dimensionality of the structure (2D vs 3D) or the presence of redundancies in the visual representation. These studies support the hypothesis that strategies for chunking the spatial structure of information may be critical tools for transcending otherwise severely limited visuospatial capacity in the absence of expertise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number18
JournalCognitive Research: Principles and Implications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020


  • Visual Memory, Expertise, Spatial skills

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Medicine(all)


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