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Dr. Kelly Mix, Michigan State University – Spatial Training and Math Ability

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Kelly Mix of Michigan State University reveals the connection between math ability and visual spatial training. 

Kelly Mix is a professor of educational psychology in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education at Michigan State University. Her research is focused on the development of number concepts and mathematical reasoning, with a particular interest in the emergence of these ideas in infancy and early childhood. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

About Dr. Mix

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Dr. Kelly Mix – Spatial Training and Math Ability

For some time, psychologists have known that people with good spatial skills are also good at math.  Spatial skills include things like reading maps, remembering where things are, and imagining objects moving.  People who are good at these spatial tasks excel in mathematics and are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology.  Children with strong spatial skills also do better at math in school  Some researchers think this is because math concepts are easier to understand if you can relate them to a bodily experience, like moving through space.

If so, then training in spatial skills should lead to improvement in mathematics.  To find out, Yi Ling Cheng and I gave 6- to 8-year-olds a short math test with addition and subtraction problems.  Then we gave them some spatial training.   Specifically, we showed them two halves of an object, and taught them to imagine the halves coming together to make a whole.  After training, we gave children another version of the math test.  Even with very little spatial training, children’s scores on the math test went up.  When we gave another group of children the two tests but no spatial training, their math scores stayed the same.

These results suggest that spatial training might be a great tool for educators, but there is still much to be learned.  We’d like to try giving more spatial training, or training on different spatial tasks, to see whether there are even bigger effects.  It’s also important to find out whether spatial training has long-lasting effects or operates more like a warm-up.  Finally, we’d like to see if spatial training also helps older children and teens.  


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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