A study of the differences in spatial visualisation in first year engineering students and the development of training support methods

  • Mark Milne

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


It was observed during teaching of engineering drawing, that some students had difficulty visualising objects in three dimensional space, and particularly correctly executing orthographic projection. Those students with difficulties routinely confused and mixed features on differing planes. It was unclear why this happened, or indeed how to help these students overcome this issue. For many students this became a significant barrier to success and course progression.

This study investigates spatial visualisation in over 700 students in a five year period as a factor in the educational development of engineering

The spatial skill levels of all engineering students at the beginning of their first year studies was measured in order to investigate the possible reasons for these differences, identify measures, thresholds, and establish effective training methods to support students with improving this skill. The students were invited to complete questionnaires relating to their previous experience in spatial factors, identified from literature research, to explore correlation of experiences with development of spatial visualisation. Students with lower scores were offered additional spatial training classes in semester one. Using action based research the training methods and thresholds were evaluated and modified to improve effectiveness over the course of the study.

Gender differences in spatial visualisation are well evidenced in the literature. This study found that other groups of students have significantly impaired spatial visualisation that was even greater than the gender gap.

The PSVT:R test is the most widely used test for spatial visualisation in tertiary education students. A 60% threshold level has historically been set, with students performing lower than this level having difficulties with 3D problem solving on relevant courses. This study presents new threshold levels identifying suggested at risk groups, with proposed training methods supporting each of the different ability levels. With training, it was shown that PSVT:R scores were improved and generally, these students had better course outcomes.

It was found that prior exposure of practical 3D problem solving and video gaming had significant correlation with spatial skills whereas art and drawing
did not in this cohort of students. There is research potential for fMRI studies to evaluate the cognitive processes involved for engineering students and
specifically the impact of factors and training on spatial visualisation.

The study confirms the literature findings that spatial skill is trainable and key for success on engineering courses. As a novel training method haptic
sketching in comparison and combination with PC training demonstrated positive results, there is value in exploring this training concept further. The study proposes that engineering students are tested for spatial ability, and where required, training conducted early in their studies, in order to increase
their chance of course success.
Date of AwardApr 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorRichard Morris (Supervisor) & Tim Katz (Supervisor)

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