Teaching intervention improves spatial ability in women

16 Nov

Mental rotation refers to your ability to imagine the appearance of an object rotated some number of degrees from its original position. It is considered to be a good test of visualization skill and spatial ability.


There is a body of research that shows that, on average, men tend to outperform woman on mental rotation. However, a recent study published in the journal Intelligence suggests that certain types of training can improve female performance to the point where women outperform men. Here is the abstract:

Mental rotation is a critical ability for succeeding in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. It has been widely demonstrated that men outperform women in mental rotation. However, women can improve their performance if trained to use effective strategies and if they practice using spatial tasks. This study tested the hypothesis that training motivation is an effective tool to increase women’s mental rotation scores. Two experiments showed that women trained to believe they can succeed and instructed to use holistic strategies increased their mental rotation scores as much as 1 SD, to the point of reaching or going beyond men’s scores before training. The results were achieved in a 1 h training session and by comparing both repeated testing and active control groups. The discussion focuses on the importance of motivational factors in explaining the gender gap in mental rotation and in STEM careers.

From the body of the paper:

As reviewed by Hyde (2005), who supports the gender similarity hypothesis, there are just a few abilities such as mental rotation in which the gender difference is so frequently observed and could be ascribed to precocious biological factors, even to organizational factors, so that males appear to be at an advantage from the first months of life (Frick, Möhring, & Newcombe, 2014). This said, this study shows that trained women can reach the level of men’s performance. It is true that even men, when trained, increase their performance, but if not, trained women can close the gender gap with untrained men. Therefore, the results here obtained confirm that men outscore women by 0.56 and 0.92 in the two experiments, but also that women increase their scores after the strategic and/or motivational training (Cohen’s d 1.23 and 0.68).

This shows that being trained in motivational issues and/or in using the holistic strategies can actually cover even this highly critical gender difference in mental rotation. It is possible that, if this kind of training operates with mental rotation abilities, which are considered masculine, the more it will be expected to work with other cognitive abilities for which smaller gender differences have been observed.

A highly interesting paper.

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