Multimedia Tutors Developed to Teach Visualization
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.
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
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.
This 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.
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
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