Spatial Ability Instrument Ceiling Effect and Implications

Document Type

Conference Paper

Journal/Book Title/Conference

123rd Annual Conference Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education


New Orleans, LA

Publication Date



This research paper investigates the potential existence of and implications for a ceiling effect observed in sophomore engineering students' spatial ability scores when using a common spatial ability instrument. Repeated use of the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Visualization of Rotations (PSVT:R) – shown herein over the course of two semesters – has revealed potential limitations when using the assessment with undergraduate engineering students during their sophomore year. The correlation between spatial ability and academic performance in engineering education has been thoroughly established. The PSVT:R and its revision are commonly used in academic spatial ability research. However, with the observed high average performance typical of engineering students on the PSVT:R, a ceiling effect may pose limitations to its utility. Sophomore engineering students in a Statics class - the first class in the Engineering Mechanics series - were each given the PSVT:R and Mental Cutting Test (MCT) assessments twice per semester. Results showing that the MCT may be more capable of differentiating student abilities, despite having a lower possible maximum score, are presented. Scores from similarly aged students in an Anatomy class are provided for comparison. The impact of ceiling effects for the education of high-performing populations, such as Engineering Mechanics students, will be discussed and actions for improvements in spatial ability measurement will be proposed. An argument is also put forth to understand how these tests relate to students' engineering capabilities.

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