Examining the relationship between spatial ability and cognitive load during complex problem solving
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Spatial ability is documented as a predictor of success in STEM disciplines and noted to contribute to individuals problem-solving approaches. While there is a significant body of correlational evidence indicating that spatial ability relates to success in different areas in STEM, there is a gap in understanding of the cause of this relationship. The work presented through this paper seeks to contribute towards addressing this gap. Spatial ability is outlined as a cognitive factor through theories of intelligence. Thus, it is theorised through this research that spatial ability’s contribution to complex problem solving may be due to the management of cognitive resources. To evaluate this theory, this paper seeks to explore whether individuals with higher levels of spatial ability have a greater capacity to manage cognitive resources while solving problems, therefore reducing the cognitive load experienced. Undergraduate engineering students in their first (n = 114) and third (n = 79) year of study were invited to participate in the research. Participants were asked to solve the three-disk and more difficult four-disk Tower of Hanoi problem, which are representative of a complex problem. Following the completion of each problem a 9-point Likert-type item was administered to measure cognitive load. Three psychometric spatial tests were administered to participants, The Purdue Spatial Visualization Test and Rotations/Mental Rotation Test-A, Surface Development Test, and Paper Folding Test. Through analysis of the data a significant relationship was found between spatial ability and problem-solving performance, where higher levels of spatial ability related to improved performance. A significant relationship was also found between spatial ability and the cognitive load experienced during problem solving, where higher levels of spatial ability related to lower levels of cognitive load. These findings suggest that higher levels of spatial ability support the management of cognitive resources during problem solving. The findings are discussed in relation to the existing body of research and potential avenues for future work are explored.
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