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IES Grant

Title: Exploring the Spatial Alignment Hypothesis in STEM Learning Environments
Center: NCER Year: 2017
Principal Investigator: Matlen, Bryan Awardee: WestEd
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (08/01/2017 – 07/31/2021) Award Amount: $1,399,631
Goal: Exploration Award Number: R305A170165
Description:

Co-Principal Investigators: Dedre Gentner (Northwestern University), Benjamin Jee (Worcester State University)

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to explore how to optimize the spatial arrangement of commonly used visuals, such as worked examples and diagrams, to facilitate visual comparison as students learn mathematics and science concepts. Visual comparison is the process of identifying the relational structure that visuals share (i.e., the correspondences between the aligned components of the compared items). Surprisingly, little is known about how to spatially arrange visuals to facilitate visual comparison and improve learning.The aims of this project are to (1) explore how visuals can be optimally presented in content areas where visual comparisonsare common and the ability to perceive the relational structure is critical to acquiring expertise (e.g., algebra, life science) and (2) explore whether individual differences, such as spatial reasoning and baselinedomain knowledge, moderate the effects of spatial arrangement on learning.

Project Activities: In Year 1, the research team will conduct Study 1, an analysis of ten middle school mathematics and life science textbooks. They will code for different types of spatial arrangements of visuals to identify the types of spatial arrangements most commonly used in textbooks. In addition, the research team will conduct four experiments (one each year) with middle school students to understand whether arranging visuals in a way that should facilitate students' ability to see alignment across the visuals or in a way that may impede their ability to see alignment across the visuals affects learning in life science and algebra.

Products: Researchers will produce preliminary evidence of optimal spatial arrangements of visuals in mathematics and science, and peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This research will take place in suburban and urban middle schools in California and Illinois as well as in university research laboratories.

Sample: Researchers plan to recruit 410 middle school students (approximately 30 students in Year 1 and 80 students in Year 2 to participate in laboratory studies, and 550 students across Years 3 and 4 to participate in classroom studies).

Intervention: Due to the exploratory nature of this research, there is no intervention. The malleable factor of interest is the spatial arrangement of visuals, such as worked examples and diagrams, in mathematics and science content areas. The findings from this research could provide guidance to teachers and curriculum developers around the optimal arrangement of visuals in textbooks and other instructional materials. 

Research Design and Methods: In Year 1, the research team will examine ten middle school mathematics and life science textbooks,  coding different types of spatial arrangements of visuals to identify the types of spatial arrangements most commonly used in textbooks. In addition, the research team will conduct four experiments (one each year; referred to as Studies 2-5) with students to understand whether arranging visuals in a way that should facilitate students' ability to see alignment across the visuals or in a way that may impede their ability to see alignment across the visuals affects learning in life science and algebra. Study 2 uses a within-subjects design while Studies 3-5 use a between-subjects design (i.e., students are randomly assigned to condition). Studies 2 and 4 focus on life science diagrams while Studies 3 and 5 focus on algebraic worked examples. Studies 2 and 3 take place in the laboratory in a single session. Studies 3 and 5 take place in the classroom and span multiple days. Across all studies, students will complete pre-tests and engage in a task where they interact with visuals presented in a spatial arrangement dictated by condition. For Studies 3-5, students will complete post-tests after interacting with the visuals.

Control Condition: Across Studies 2-5, a condition where visuals are arranged in a way that should facilitate students' ability to see alignment across the visuals is compared to a condition where visuals are arranged in a way that may impede their ability to see alignment across the visuals.

Key Measures: Key measures consist of the Revised Purdue Spatial Visualization Test, researcher-developed measures of procedural and conceptual algebraic knowledge (, the Assessing Contextual Reasoning about Natural Selection instrument, reaction time and accuracy of spotting anomalous features in skeletal structures, similarity ratings and categorizations of skeletal structures, and student explanations of their comparisons and categorizations. A textbook analysis will involve coding of math and life science visuals.

Data Analytic Strategy: The primary analytic strategy will involve fitting Analysis of Covariance models, with additional random effect terms to account for the nested structure of the design where appropriate.


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