The Use of Eye-Tracking in Spatial Thinking Research

The Use of Eye-Tracking in Spatial Thinking Research

Alina Nazareth (Temple University, USA), Rosalie Odean (Florida International University, USA) and Shannon M. Pruden (Florida International University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1005-5.ch012
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This chapter highlights the benefits of eye-tracking technology in spatial thinking research, specifically in the study of complex cognitive processes used to solve spatial tasks including cognitive strategy selection, cognitive strategy flexibility and spatial language processing. The consistent sex differences found in spatial thinking research (i.e., mental rotation), with males outperforming females, is concerning given the link between spatial ability and success in the STEM fields. Traditional methods like self-reports, checklists and response times methods may not be sufficient to study complex cognitive processes. Advances in eye-tracking technology make it possible to efficiently record and analyze voluminous eye-gaze data as an indirect measure of underlying cognitive processes involved in solving spatial tasks. A better understanding of the cognitive processes underlying spatial thinking will facilitate the design of effective training and educational pedagogy that encourages spatial thinking across both males and females.
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Spatial thinking is an overarching cognitive construct composed of several distinct skills including, but not limited to, retaining and transforming mental images, navigating and way-finding, and reading maps, graphs and diagrams. Spatial thinking is present in varying degrees in many everyday tasks like assembling and rearranging furniture, backing out of a driveway, navigating an unfamiliar route, and even playing organized sports like basketball. Recent research on spatial thinking suggests that it predicts success in scientific domains like Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Mathematics, domains that are typically classified as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics disciplines (STEM; e.g., Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997; Coleman & Gotch, 1998; Kozhevnikov, Motes, & Hegarty, 2010; Lubinski, 2010; Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). For example, performance on a mental rotation task, where individuals are usually asked to determine whether two figures that are either rotations or mirror images of each other match or do not match, is significantly correlated with anatomy examination performance (Guillot, Champely, Batier, Thiriet, & Collet, 2007; Hoyek et al., 2009). Research using mental rotation tasks sheds light on the complex cognitive processes involved in mental representation and in spatial thinking (Pylyshyn, 2003; Shepard & Metzler, 1971). Importantly, mental rotation research provides insight into inter-individual differences in cognitive strategy selection; that is, whether individuals adapt their cognitive strategy use, using several cognitive strategies to solve the task when item complexity changes (Khooshabeh, Hegarty & Shipley, 2012). Adaptive spatial thinking, sometimes referred to as spatial intelligence, has received national attention in the United States in recent years with a call for including spatial thinking in school curriculum (Hegarty, 2010; National Research Council, 2006).

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