Students often exhibit a great deal of difficulty learning the abstract concepts of research design. For example, many have trouble comprehending the underlying associations of correlations, especially with regard to their direction and strength. Providing a graph of the correlation will often give some insight, but even modest changes to the data usually result in confusion unless a revised picture and explanation are given. One of the reasons for this may be inability to form and manipulate mental representations of such concepts.
The ability to produce and manipulate or modify figural images is known as spatial ability. Although it is recognised by many as an important factor in mathematics and science (Tartre, 1990; Voyer, 1996; Wheatley, 1997), past research has not explored whether a similar relationship exists between spatial ability and research concepts. Given the visual component of many research constructs, though, such an association seems highly plausible. The goal of the present study was to begin an exploration of this possible connection.
Method. Fifty-seven undergraduates (forty-seven females and ten males) completed a test on research concepts and two measures of spatial ability. The spatial tests chosen reflected the two aspects of spatial ability thought to be the most important to mathematics and science: spatial visualisation (complex reasoning about object features) and spatial orientation (mental rotation of objects).
Measures. Designed by the researcher, the Test of Research Concepts (TORC) is a two-part measure, each with five items. Part I requires students to read a brief research scenario, including a statement of the findings, and then select the correct graph of the findings from eight possibilities. In Part II students are given a graph of findings and asked to choose the statement that best reflects the depicted outcome.
The two measures of spatial cognition were selected from the ETS Kit of Factor-referenced Cognitive Tests (Ekstrom et al., 1976). The Paper Folding Test was used to assess spatial visualisation, and spatial orientation was evaluated with the Card Rotations Test. Both are paper-and-pencil measures.
Results and discussion. The results reported in Table 1 support the hypothesis that a positive association exists between spatial ability and students' understanding of research findings Although the lack of correlation between the TORC I and spatial visualisation (Paper Folding) was surprising, two possible explanations for the outcome are suggested. …