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Engineering Design Graphics Journal




American Society for Engineering Education * Engineering Design Graphics Division

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The current study examined the neural correlates of spatial rotation in eight engineering undergraduates. Mastering engineering graphics requires students to mentally visualize in 3D and mentally rotate parts when developing 2D drawings. Students’ spatial rotation skills play a significant role in learning and mastering engineering graphics. Traditionally, the assessment of students’ spatial skills involves no measurements of neural activity during student performance of spatial rotation tasks. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to record neural activity while students performed the Revised Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Visualization of Rotations (Revised PSVT:R). The two main objectives were to 1) determine whether high versus low performers on the Revised PSVT:R show differences in EEG oscillations and 2) identify EEG oscillatory frequency bands sensitive to item difficulty on the Revised PSVT:R.

Overall performance on the Revised PSVT:R determined whether participants were considered high or low performers: students scoring 90% or higher were considered high performers (5 students), whereas students scoring under 90% were considered low performers (3 students). Time-frequency analysis of the EEG data quantified power in several oscillatory frequency bands (alpha, beta, theta, gamma, delta) for comparison between low and high performers, as well as between difficulty levels of the spatial rotation problems.

Although we did not find any significant effects of performance type (high, low) on EEG power, we observed a trend in reduced absolute delta and gamma power for hard problems relative to easier problems. Decreases in delta power have been reported elsewhere for difficult relative to easy arithmetic calculations, and attributed to greater external attention (e.g., attention to the stimuli/numbers), and consequently, reduced internal attention (e.g., mentally performing the calculation). In the current task, a total of three spatial objects are presented. An example rotation stimulus is presented, showing a spatial object before and after rotation. A target stimulus, or spatial object before rotation is then displayed. Students must choose one of five stimuli (multiple choice options) that indicates the correct representation of the object after rotation. Reduced delta power in the current task implies that students showed greater attention to the example and target stimuli for the hard problem, relative to the moderate and easy problems. Therefore, preliminary findings suggest that students are less efficient at encoding the target stimuli (external attention) prior to mental rotation (internal attention) when task difficulty increases.

Our findings indicate that delta power may be used to identify spatial rotation items that are especially challenging for students. We may then determine the efficacy of spatial rotation interventions among engineering education students, using delta power as an index for increases in internal attention (e.g., increased delta power). Further, in future work, we will also use eye-tracking to assess whether our intervention decreases eye fixation (e.g., time spent viewing) toward the target stimulus on the Revised PSVT:R. By simultaneously using EEG and eye-tracking, we may identify changes in internal attention and encoding of the target stimuli that are predictive of improvements in spatial rotation skills among engineering education students.

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