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Multimedia Tutors Developed to Teach Visualization Skills

A team of psychologists, computer scientists, and engineers at the University of Massachusetts studied the process by which we reason spatially and used their results to develop multimedia tutors for engineering students. All told, they collaborated on the design of some 25 experiments and the development of 10 different multimedia tutors.

Image of Stamping TutorUnderstanding a wide variety of topics across science, mathematics, and engineering, such as manufacturing processes and the representation of molecular structures, requires good visualization skills. Many students, particularly women, struggle with these topics. Engineering faculty find these topics challenging to teach, and engineering students find learning them difficult and boring. We don't really understand how best to teach these skills. Computers can't replace the need for students with strong visualization and spatial reasoning skills any more than calculators can replace the need for students with strong arithmetic skills.

To improve instruction for these students, this KDI grant team sought to identify the cognitive processes that govern performance on the various visualization and spatial reasoning tasks. They found that the difficulties students have mentally rotating complex three-dimensional objects derives largely from their failure to keep track of the details of the object being rotated and not from fundamental difficulties with the rotation itself. One task that most students had difficulty with involved rotating a very thin box around an axis formed by a dowel that skewered the box. When the box was not at right angles to the dowel, the students struggled in their attempt to mentally rotate the box around the dowel.

Image of injection molding tutorThis finding was particularly striking, according to Don Fisher, the principal investigator on this project. "The error rate on this task for students in engineering as well as the social sciences and humanities reached as high as 90%. It is strong evidence that the ability to rotate objects mentally is not innate, but instead must be learned over time for each different type of rotation." Fisher added that "failure on the laboratory task is of significant practical concern because it is a close analog of the tasks that must be performed in the study of engineering, including drawing, strip layout, stamping, and kinematics."

These findings suggest the need for instruction, especially when the rotation is like the ones described above that are a source of such difficulty. Toward this end, the project team used these findings to identify the steps people take when solving spatial problems and the skills they need to perform those operations. They used that information to develop a suite of multimedia tutors. An important feature of the tutors is their feedback mechanism. If a student is unable to solve a particular problem, the tutor both reasons about the skills on which the student is deficient and provides remedial help on those skills by presenting the student with simpler problems until the skill in question is mastered.

Image of forging tutorThe multimedia tutors offer much promise as learning tools. When the investigators evaluated student performance with the tutor on rotation, they found that students with strong spatial reasoning skills moved through the tutor quickly and reached the most difficult problems. The weaker students moved through the tutor more slowly because they were presented with simpler problems to help them master skills with which they had difficulty. Despite their slower pace, the weaker students reached the same level of problem complexity as the stronger students. These results are very promising: the stronger students mastered the skills without becoming bored, and the weaker students were able to receive the help they needed to attain the same level of mastery.

According to Beverly Woolf, a co-principal investigator, "These skills are important for a variety of science domains and are not taught in classes. There seems to be a strong link between spatial skills and ability in mathematics and engineering. There is also a gender interaction in that women are much weaker in these skills. One of our goals is to help support women to improve their visualization skills and to stay in the sciences."

As a result of these collaborations, a number of promising new areas of investigation are being pursued. Some faculty are now working with laparoscopic surgeons in an attempt to better understand the visualization and spatial reasoning skills of such surgeons. Others are working with young drivers in an attempt to identify the visualization and spatial reasoning skills that they need to predict the risks that can arise in complex traffic situations.


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