The relationship between visuospatial cognition and children’s science learning and reasoning

This is the second in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

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Next up is Alex Hodgkiss, a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education.

Hello Alex! Please introduce yourself – what’s your background and what are you researching?

I’m currently in the second year of my PhD, researching the relationship between visuospatial cognition and children’s science learning and reasoning. After my first degree in psychology, I worked as a primary school teacher for four years and sometimes still do cover teaching around London. I find it useful to keep my ‘finger on the pulse’ in the classroom and remind myself of the realities of day-to-day education. As a researcher in this field, it’s easy to forget about this!

Visuospatial thinking is something we do all the time: when we read a map; pack a suitcase or (perhaps not all the time!) build flat pack furniture. Historically, these skills have been more linked with manual trades, but over the past few years a good deal of research has also pointed to the role they play in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) success. I’m interested in how and why different spatial skills (e.g. mental rotation ability, visualisation) predict children’s success in science and how we might use this to support children in science.

I am in the process of writing up data from my first study for publication. Around 125 primary-school aged children completed a number of spatial tasks and standardised assessments in biology, chemistry and physics. I found that spatial thinking (particularly mental folding and scaling ability) was predictive of performance in biology and physics above verbal IQ.

What first got you interested in visuospatial thinking?

I think the first time I became interested in visuospatial thinking was during my undergraduate degree in the context of mental rotation and imagery in cognitive psychology. I was particularly interested in individual differences in spatial cognition: how and why some people find these tasks easier than others. As a teacher, this later developed into an interest in how this might impact on how well children learn in the classroom.

What are the potential implications of your work for education?

STEM industries are a large contributor to our economy, yet performance, interest and uptake in further STEM study to A-level and degree-level continues to be an issue. Spatial thinking may be a barrier for some students who struggle to get past early stages of STEM learning without prerequisite skills and confidence in spatial thinking. Early interventions to support spatial thinking in science will hopefully both support children’s science learning in the short term, but also have a knock-on effect later on. These interventions might be directly training children’s spatial skills, equipping students with spatial tools to support their learning or adapting the curriculum.

Is there anything that teachers, parents or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?

I think, right now, being aware that spatial thinking impacts how well children do in science is an important first step. As a teacher or parent, this can just make you more mindful that some children, who are otherwise academically strong, might struggle to use spatial tools (graphs, diagrams) or learn spatially demanding topics and may just need some extra time and support. It’s too early to say if training spatial skills directly will improve science learning because there’s not enough convincing evidence. I would recommend the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center’s website ( for more information and resources.

What direction will your work will take in the future?

I’m planning on doing a classroom study in collaboration with a teacher where I will analyse children’s learning in the context of a lesson in relation to their spatial thinking ability, to get an idea of how these skills might impact day-to-day learning. I am also interested in how gesture and directed visualisation might be useful spatial tools.

What are the most important research questions that need to be addressed in visuospatial thinking abilities in science?

  • What mechanisms are driving the relationship between visuospatial thinking and science?
  • Is direct training of visuospatial thinking skills enough to improve outcomes, or do we need to embed interventions and spatial tools within the curriculum?

Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne

Deputy Editor of The Psychologist, British Psychological Society

Before my current role I used behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning.