Keehner M, Montello D.R., Hegarty M. & Cohen C. (2004). "Effects of interactivity and spatial ability on the comprehension of spatial relations in a 3D computer visualization"

From MathWiki

Keehner M, Montello D.R., Hegarty M. & Cohen C. (2004). Effects of interactivity and spatial ability on the comprehension of spatial relations in a 3D computer visualization. In Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (eds K. Forbus, D. Gentner & T. Regier). Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 1576pp.

Available online:

Table of contents

Study overview

The Spatial Task

“Undergraduates were presented with a fictitious anatomy-like structure in the form of 
both printed 2D images and a 3D computer visualization that could be rotated in x, y and
z dimensions. A superimposed vertical or horizontal line on the printed images indicated
where they should imagine the structure had been sliced. The task was to draw the cross
section at that point. The drawings were assessed for spatial understanding using a
standardized scoring scheme” (Kehher et al., 2004).

The Method

Sixty undergraduate students were selected as participants and randomly assigned to one of two group:

Active group -- permitted to rotate the 3D computer visualization at will. Passive group – no control over the rotation of the 3D computer visualization.

[To ensure that only the interactivity of the experience was altered, the rotations employed by the active group were recorded and then played back for the passive group members.]

The participants of each group were also tested for spatial ability, the second factor explored in the study.

Interactivity Method

The participants were able to control the rotations of the 3D image in real time through the use of a basic keyboard. A participant would press x, y or z to choose a coordinate axis, and then use the arrow keys to rotate the object through the selected axis.

The Results

  • As one may expect, spatial ability was a significant factor in the performance of the participants. Thus, spatial ability was found to be the biggest predictor of participants’ successful performance.
  • There was no significant difference between the active and passive control conditions. Thus, having active control of the visualization did not benefit participants’ overall performance, as shown through the comparison of the two groups.

The interesting part:

  • There was a significant difference in the performance of high- and low-spatial participants in the passive condition, but not in the active condition.
  • The correlation between spatial ability and perfomance on the task was greater during the passive condition (r=.51, p<.005) versus the active condition (r=.29, p>.1).
  • In other words, when participants had direct control over the manipulation of the 3D computer visualization, there was less of a difference between the performance of high- and low-spatial participants.
  • So, can we conclude that interactivity is essential for low-spatial learners? The authors explain,
However, the contribution of this factor was
stronger in the passive condition than in the active
condition, i.e. when participants were allowed to manipulate
the 3D model, the performance means of high and low
spatial individuals were brought closer together. While low-spatial
participants were helped by interactivity, this benefit
did not extend to high-spatial individuals. We are currently
undertaking a replication study with a more intuitive control
mechanism, to establish whether these findings arose from
the nature of the interface or from interactivity per se.

The Replication Study

Please see: Keehner, M., & Khooshabeh, P. (2005). "Computerized representations of 3D structure: How spatial comprehension and patterns of interactivity differ among learners" for the replication study refered to in the previous section.


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