Investigating the effect of engineering student's spatial ability and expertise on general complex problem solving

Reid, Clodagh, Buckley, Jeffrey and Dunbar, Rónán (2021) Investigating the effect of engineering student's spatial ability and expertise on general complex problem solving. ISSN 1893-1774


Spatial ability is attributed to success in STEM disciplines and is outlined as a component of general cognitive ability through the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model of human intelligence. Research in spatially orientated disciplines outside of STEM has indicated that individuals with high levels of spatial ability and lower levels of expertise can perform to a similar standard as individuals with high levels of expertise when solving a discipline-specific problem. This indicates that spatial ability can support individuals in overcoming limitations in expertise. Through this research it is hypothesised that spatial ability will influence the performance of engineering students across different levels of expertise on a general complex problem-solving task. Undergraduate students in their first (n=49) and third (n=48) years of study on civil, mechanical, and software engineering programmes were invited to participate. The Purdue Spatial Visualization Test and Rotations, Surface Development Test, and Paper Folding Test were used to obtain a measure of spatial ability for participants. The Tower of Hanoi, as an indicator of complex general problem solving, was administered and a 9-point Likert-type item was used as an indicator of the mental effort experienced by participants when they had completed the problem. Through the analysis of the data no significance was found between performance on a complex problem-solving task and the expertise of the problem solver. This finding suggests that engagement in engineering education, at least that experienced by the participants, does not lead to the development of generic problem-solving skills. These findings are discussed in relation to the existing body of research and their contribution to further investigations into understanding the relationship between spatial ability and performance in solving engineering problems.

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