An investigation into the role of spatial ability in problem solving in engineering education
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Problem solving is a fundamental component of engineering practice and as such, the development of problem-solving skills is a core goal of engineering education. Problem-orientated pedagogical approaches are used in educational practice to facilitate the development of this key skill, however, there are reports that the problem-solving skills of engineering graduates are underdeveloped. It is necessary to investigate and understand factors which support problem solving to contribute towards addressing this skills gap. General cognitive abilities are outlined as an important factor underpinning problem solving. Of particular interest in the context of engineering problem solving is the general cognitive ability, spatial ability. Engineering is a spatially and visually oriented discipline where spatial ability has been associated with retention and success of individuals in the field. Although there is a body of correlational evidence to indicate the contribution of spatial ability to success in STEM disciplines, there is a significant gap in understanding the causal relationship between spatial ability and associated success. This thesis aims to contribute towards the understanding of the causal association between spatial ability and success in engineering through investigating the role of spatial ability in problem solving. As spatial ability is a cognitive factor, cognitive load is considered as a pertinent factor in this research as it is theorised that spatial ability may influence the cognitive load experience during problem solving. A convergent mixed method study was conducted to address the research aim with engineering students at the initial and concluding stages of their engineering education to attend to the research question and objectives. The results of this thesis establish that complex problem-solving performance did not differ across levels of engineering expertise (as determined through progression), showing a tentative misalignment between educational goals and outcomes. The findings indicated that spatial ability levels did not differ across groups of expertise. However, findings suggested that higher levels of spatial ability contribute to (a) problem solving performance (b) cognitive load during problem solving and (c) behaviours demonstrated during problem solving. This research contributes towards understanding of the causal association between spatial ability and success in engineering by demonstrating that irrespective of levels of engineering expertise, spatial ability can influence problem-solving performance which is an inherent component of contemporary engineering education approaches. The findings of this thesis are discussed relative to their potential implications for engineering education practice and advancement of understanding the causal theory of spatial ability and success in engineering.
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