Bertrand Schneider

Perceptual Benefits of Manipulatives

A twist on a classical spatial test.

For this study I explored the perceptual benefits of using tangible objects for a spatial problem-solving task. In two experiments, thirty-three participants completed the Paper Folding Test (Ekstrom, French & Harman, 1976) with either a physical or abstract representation of the material:

We found that subjects (females, in particular) were faster and more accurate in solving the test using physical material.

One interpretation is that physical material allows for “epistemic actions”: namely, “actions whose purpose is not to alter the world so as to advance physically toward some goal (e.g., laying a brick for a walk), but rather to alter the world so as to help make available information required as part of a problem solving routine. Examples of epistemic actions include looking at a chessboard from different angles, organizing the spatial layout of a hand of cards). In our case, women in particular took advantage of this feature of physical models. Another interpretation is that females may be more likely to rely on surfaces features, which is a double-edged sword for a spatial task. Indeed, when the representation is close to reality female participants don’t have any trouble to solve the problem at hand; however, when the surface features are confusing they have much more difficulty figuring out the right solution. As a consequence, we can imagine that training some subjects to extract the deep structure of a problem to help them perform better at this task.

Implications for Education

This study has several implications for education: for example, teaching chemistry usually involves working with complex 3D molecules. It would be interesting to explore whether graphic displays of molecules that include more perceptual clues such as shading would enhance the level of performance in chemistry. We also propose that some students (females, in particular) may benefit form a customized curriculum and potentially be trained to transition from a physical to an abstract representation in order to extract the deep structures of a problem. Finally, future studies should also test whether it is possible to teach students to extract the deep structure of a problem and rely on this mental model to perform a task. Indeed, it may be possible that those skills 1) are innate, and thus cannot be changed; or 2) necessitate en extensive training (e.g. several hundreds of hours) to be improved.

Future Work

I am currently replicating this study using an eye-tracker. The goal is to more finely detect participants’ strategies and describe patterns of failure and success.


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