A Matter Of Space

SOE researchers say spatial ability, not gender, holds the key to higher math scores

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Spatial ability - which helps people visualize what an object looks like from different angles - may hold the key to resolving an often contentious issue, say two School of Education researchers: Why boys tend to do better than girls on standardized math tests.

Analyzing the test performances of a group of high school students, professors M. Beth Casey and Ronald Nuttall, along with Elizabeth Pezaris '90 - a psychologist in the Melrose public schools - found that boys' spatial abilities were a greater factor in their achieving higher math scores than a lack of "math confidence" among girls.

Professors Ronald Nuttall and M. Beth Casey (SOE) say building blocks play an important role in developing children's spatial abilities. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Their findings could reshape the debate over the relative performances of girls and boys in math and science. Some researchers have argued girls do not do as well because of anxiety or lack of self-confidence, and because they have been "socialized" to expect less of themselves in these subjects. While not discounting social factors, the Boston College researchers say focusing on differences in spatial abilities - which are affected by both heredity and environment - is more likely to produce a change.

"Spatial skills are more important than math self-confidence in explaining the factors that account for the gender difference in math SATs among high-ability people," said Casey.

"It's time to think about spatial skills as accounting for gender differences in SAT math scores," Nuttall said. "If you have people who have high spatial ability and high self-confidence, they will do well on SATs. It's not a gender issue anymore."

Casey, Nuttall and Pezaris published their findings in the journal Developmental Psychology and their study has attracted attention from the popular media, including The Boston Globe .

The team studied 94 college-bound Melrose high school students who were in the top third of their class. When the students were sophomores, the researchers gave them "mental rotation" tests, which gauge spatial skill by asking a subject to determine how complex block formations - resembling a child's Lego block creations, or segments of a Rubik's Cube - would appear from a reverse angle. They also asked the students to evaluate their own math skills, self-confidence and anxieties.

Comparing the students' SAT performances two years later with results from the earlier tests, the researchers found that 64 percent of the measurable difference in math scores was attributable to the boys' higher spatial ability. Only 36 percent of the differences, they said, was attributable to girls' lower self-confidence.

Social factors still influence the success of girls in math courses, said Casey and Nuttall, who added that their research has shown girls often continue to be subtly or overtly discouraged from pursuing the traditionally male-dominated studies of math and science.

But Casey and Nuttall say it is highly significant that boys tend to do better than girls on mental rotation tests, noting others studies that found only 16 percent of top female pupils demonstrated spatial skills at the level shown by 50 percent of top male pupils. The boys' advantage on tests, Casey noted, may stem in part from greater exposure to building block games and other pastimes that use spatial skills.

Conversely, in many cases girls with strong spatial skills - Casey estimates that 50 percent of girls have the ability to use them effectively - have not been spurred to discover them or put them to mathematical use.

To hone these skills in young girls, Casey and SOE associate professors Martha Bronson and Michael Schiro and Asst. Prof. Lillie Albert have devised a kindergarten regimen that utilizes storytelling and other activities to encourage both girls and boys to develop talents at creating toy castles and other block structures. They are now seeking outside support for their project.

"We want to build in activities so girls have access to the block center, so blocks are not the sole province of boys," she said. "Spatial skills have been ignored. You need to start early to develop those skills."

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