Spatial Reasoning

Enhancing spatial reasoning increases retention of women (and men) in the science and technology classroom.

How much of a difference can spatial reasoning assessment and training make for female STEM students? At Michigan Tech 80% of female engineering students that received the training were retained compared to 50% of women with weak spatial skills who did not receive any training. This three-page research brief highlights the key research supporting the use of spatial reasoning training as an intervention for increasing the retention of female STEM students.

Download the research brief on the ENGAGE website.


ENGAGE Strategy Research Brief Spatial Visualization Skills. (2012, August 14). Retrieved from ENGAGE Engaging Students in Engineering:

This literature review on spatial reasoning skills with a focus on female engineering students covers gender differences in spatial reasoning ability, methods for assessing student ability, interventions that have proven effective for female engineering students, and research-based recommendations for college-level engineering programs. The paper discusses successful interventions such as a three-hour workshop for low-scoring students in an introductory engineering course that effectively eliminated gender differences in spatial reasoning scores.

Download the PDF from the ENGAGE website.


Metz, S. S., Donohue, S., & Moore, C. (2012). Spatial Skills: A Focus on Gender and Engineering. In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources. Retrieved from

The ENGAGE project worked with the authors of the Introduction to 3D Spatial Visualization: An Active Approach textbook and workbook to provide educators with customizable PowerPoint presentations to introduce nine spatial reasoning curriculum modules. At Michigan Tech 80% of female engineering students who took a spatial skills course using a curriculum developed by Sheryl Sorby -- one of the authors of the textbook and PowerPoint presentations –- were retained, compared to 50% of the women who didn't take the course.

Download the customizable PowerPoint presentations introducing nine spatial reasoning curriculum modules on the ENGAGE website.


Sorby, S., Hamlin, A., & Veurink, N. (2012, August 14). Spatial Visualization Skills Teaching Resources: Companion Lecture Notes. Retrieved from ENGAGE Engaging Students in Engineering:

This exercise, in which students take slices of clay letters, was developed by a biology professor to enhance students' spatial reasoning without using challenging jargon or digital imaging.


LeClair, Elizabeth, "Alphatome--Enhancing Spatial Reasoning," Journal of College Science Teaching v. 33 no. 1 (September/October 2003) p. 26-31.

For more than 50 college students, playing Tetris for a total of 6 hours improved mental rotation time and spatial visualization skills in women and men.


Reprinted from Okagaki, Lynn; Peter A. Frensch, "Effects of video game playing on measures of spatial performance: Gender effects in late adolescence," Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 15, Issue 1, Pages 33-58, Copyright (1994) with permission from Elsevier.

More than three-quarters of women who took an introductory spatial skills course were retained, compared to 48% of the women who didn't take the course. Find out what worked at one College of Engineering. See also the Spatial Reasoning Software developed by author Sheryl Sorby.


Sorby, Sheryl, "Gender Differences in Spatial Reasoning Skills and their Effects on Success," The Michigan Tech Project: Phase 1--Initial Development, Michigan Technological University.

Many female engineering students lag behind their male counterparts in 3-D visualization, which is critical to engineering. The authors explain why and recommend solutions. See also the Spatial Reasoning Software developed by author Sheryl Sorby.


Medina, Afonso and Helena Gerson and Sheryl Sorby, "Identifying Gender Differences in the 3-D Visualization Skills of Engineering Students in Brazil and in the United States," International Conference on Engineering Education, 1998.

A two-hour workshop on spatial reasoning with accompanying visualization software completely eliminated significant gender differences in spatial reasoning abilities among a group of University of California at Berkeley engineering students.


Copyright © 1995 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Reprinted from, Agogino, A.M. and S. Hsi, "Learning Style Based Innovations to Improve Retention of Female Engineering Students in the Synthesis Coalition," (Engineering Education for the 21st Century: Proceedings of Frontiers in Education, FIE'95, ASEE/IEEE, pp. 4a2.). This material is posted here with permission of the IEEE. Such permission of the IEEE does not in any way imply IEEE endorsement of any of the products or services of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science (IWITTS). Internal or personal use of this material is permitted. However, permission to reprint/republish this material for advertising or promotional purposes or for creating new collective works for resale or redistribution must be obtained from the IEEE by writing to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. By choosing to view this document, you agree to all provisions of the copyright laws protecting it.

The mostly female student body at Bronx Community College is very low income; the majority of students qualify for financial aid. Short, intensive courses in basic skills combined with student support significantly improved their grades and retention.


Finkelstein, Jason A., "Maximizing Retention for At-Risk Freshmen: The Bronx Community College Model," 2002.

This study found that playing an action video game virtually eliminated the gender difference in spatial attention and simultaneously decreased the gender disparity in mental rotation ability.


Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt, "Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition," Psychological Science v. 18 no. 10 (24 Sept. 2007) p. 850-855

Citing the importance of spatial thinking from building furniture to discovering the structure of DNA the author calls for more education in spatial literacy, in particular for women.


Newcombe, Nora S., "A Plea for Spatial Literacy," Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, March 3, 2006, Vol. 52, Issue 26.

After a one-semester introductory geoscience course, gender differences in spatial relations skills had disappeared for a group of college science majors.


Baldwin, Tammy, Michelle Hall Wallace, "Spatial Ability Development in the Geosciences," poster, American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, December 8-12, 2003

Sheryl A. Sorby, Ph.D., explains how improving your female students' spatial reasoning skills increases their success in the technology classroom. The webinar includes a demonstration of Dr. Sorby's software, "Introduction to 3D Spatial Visualization: An Active Approach."

Please click here to access the webinar.