Spatial Reasoning Linked With Math Skills
June 25, 2013

Spatial Reasoning Training Improves Kids’ Math Skills

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

With educators constantly on the lookout for new ways to inspire and educate children, any technique or tool that helps students to learn can be invaluable. According to a new report from a pair of Michigan State University researchers, simple spatial reasoning exercises could help young children with their math skills.

The MSU researchers held training sessions with 6 to 8 year olds on mentally rotating objects, a spatial ability, and then watched as their addition and subtraction abilities improved significantly. The spatial exercises involved imagining how two, two-dimensional objects might fit together to form a single object.

Kelly Mix, professor of educational psychology and co-author of a paper on the study that was recently published in the Journal of Cognition and Development said the spatial exercises primed the child’s young brain for other types of calculations.

“What’s shocking is that we saw these improvements in math performance after giving the students just one 20-minute training session in spatial ability,” she said. “Imagine if the training had been six weeks.”

Previous studies have examined a potential connection between spatial reasoning and math. However, the study by Mix and her colleague Yi-Ling Cheng is the first to offer direct evidence of a causal connection between the two.

Mix said the study is especially important because it focused on the early elementary grades, as previous studies have shown that this time is vital for closing achievement gaps between students.

Besides conveying better arithmetic skills, spatial recognition skills can also be used in later educational settings or job fields, including architecture, astronomy, engineering, radiology and meteorology.

The study’s findings could bolster the arguments of some education experts who have called for spatial reasoning education in the elementary math curriculum. Mix pointed out understanding the many different forms of spatial ability and how each of them relates to the various math disciplines is very important to assessing their educational value.

With that in mind, Mix said she is pursuing further testing that looks at elementary students on different kinds of spatial ability and how they relate to math performance. Her research into spatial ability and math has received funding through the US Department of Education.

While some areas of the US are reporting increasing math scores, many observers point out that the country is still far short of the math proficiency goals set by former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. With many decrying that education law as a failure, Republican lawmakers are preparing a bill that would shift power over education from the federal government to the states. GOP supporters of the bill say Education Secretary Arne Duncan is not equipped to handle the challenges of local districts the same way superintendents, principals and teachers are.

"The secretary – or any single federal official – was never intended to have such unprecedented power. And Congress has a responsibility to protect the autonomy of states and school districts," said Republican Representative Todd Rokita of Indiana, who chairs the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education.

"The Republican bill does a poor job of ensuring all students have access to high quality education," said Democratic Representative Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, adding poor and rural schools would suffer if the legislation were passed.