Characteristics of spatial thinking
Spatial thinking has unique characteristics that offer interesting research challenges. First, spatial thinking concerns space at different scales. Thinking about the structures of molecules, envisioning the folding and unfolding of a piece of paper, making a mechanical drawing, packing a suitcase, finding your way to a destination in a new environment, and reasoning about the formative process of a geologic structure all concern thinking and reasoning about space, but they span a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Expertise in spatial thinking in STEM domains typically focuses on a specific scale, with organic chemistry, surgery, mechanical engineering, architecture, structural geology, and planetary science spanning but not exhausting the range. Spatial skills may vary across scale. For example, Hegarty et al. (2006) showed that learning from direct navigation in the environment differed from learning from a video or a desktop virtual environment, yielding two separate factors in factor analysis, and that the former was correlated with self-report sense of direction, whereas the latter with psychometrically assessed spatial ability. Learmonth et al. (2001) showed that young children's use of landmark information to reorient depends on the size of space.
Second, spatial thinking occurs in various media, including 2D static images, 3D animations, schematic diagrams, indoor and outdoor environments, immersive virtual environments, and spatial language. Each medium has its own way of representing spatial information (Liben 1999; Tversky 2001) and knowledge acquired from different media differs in structure and flexibility in important ways (Rieser 1989; Taylor and Tversky 1992; Thorndyke and Hayes-Roth 1982). In discussing spatial thinking and learning media, one should distinguish between internal representations (knowledge in the mind) and external representations (spatial products or expressions presented to a person). External spatial representations are shown visually in a certain level of detail or resolution (Goodchild and Proctor 1997), and verbally in a specific frame of reference (Levinson 1996).
Third, spatial thinking skills vary both at a group level and at the individual level. There are cases where group differences are of concern to the instructor, for example, in consideration of male–female differences in entry and retention rates in STEM disciplines (Belser et al. 2018; Chen 2013; Sithole et al. 2017). Instructors are also concerned with individual differences in aptitudes; for example, students vary in their spatial and verbal abilities and some students are good at spatial tasks and some are good at verbal tasks. Is there a good way to adjust instructional methods to students' aptitudes? Furthermore, given the existence of group and individual differences in spatial thinking, another question of concern is how instruction can have an impact, for example, whether male–female differences in spatial thinking, when they occur, can be eliminated, or how best people with difficulty in spatial thinking can improve, by training.