Groundbreaking study in Science Advances on how spatial education improves relational reasoning

Rob Cortes, a graduate student in Georgetown’s Psychology Department, led a team of researchers on a groundbreaking investigation, now out in Science Advances, on how spatial education in a real-world classroom context improves verbal reasoning. As they describe it, the model theory argues that humans co-opted mental processes designed to support visualspatial operations to reason about more abstract things. They conducted a quasi-experimental study at high schools in Virginia that pitted students who received enhanced spatial education against controls: they found that gains in spatial cognition uniquely predicted students’ reasoning improvement.

The abstract to their paper is here:

Current debate surrounds the promise of neuroscience for education, including whether learning-related neural changes can predict learning transfer better than traditional performance-based learning assessments. Longstanding debate in philosophy and psychology concerns the proposition that spatial processes underlie seemingly nonspatial/verbal reasoning (mental model theory). If so, education that fosters spatial cognition might improve verbal reasoning. Here, in a quasi-experimental design in real-world STEM classrooms, a curriculum devised to foster spatial cognition yielded transfer to improved verbal reasoning. Further indicating a spatial basis for verbal transfer, students’ spatial cognition gains predicted and mediated their reasoning improvement. Longitudinal fMRI detected learning-related changes in neural activity, connectivity, and representational similarity in spatial cognition–implicated regions. Neural changes predicted and mediated learning transfer. Ensemble modeling demonstrated better prediction of transfer from neural change than from traditional measures (tests and grades). Results support in-school “spatial education” and suggest that neural change can inform future development of transferable curricula.

and the PDF is available here.

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