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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
HAYDEL, S. B. (2000). The Effects of Gender and Athletic Experience on Spatial Ability Test Scores. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

The Effects of Gender and Athletic Experience on Spatial Ability Test Scores

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
AbstractThe purposes of this research were to provide evidence that supported the hypotheses that (a) spatial ability is related to athletic ability and athletic experience in females, and (b) that under time-pressured testing situations, the amount of questions answered by athletes would be significantly higher than the non-athletes, with the athletic males attempting to answer the most questions. The participants in this study were 64 college undergraduate students of which 27 were male athletes, 11 were female athletes, 7 were male non-athletes, and 19 were female non-athletes. The process by which athleticism was determined is discussed in detail in the method section of this report. Spatial ability was measured by a three-sectioned test, the first section measured mechanical comprehension (Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test-Form T), the second section measured space visualization (Employee Aptitude Survey-test 5), and the third section measured mental rotation (Revised Minnesota Paper Form Boards Test). The results of this research failed to confirm the hypothesized effect of athleticism on the spatial ability test scores of the female athletes on the first section (BMCT) and the third section (RMPFBT) of the spatial ability test, but a significant interaction between variables was indicated by the test scores on the second section (EAS). On this section the female athletes scored notably higher than the other three participant groups, implications of interacting variables are given in the discussion section, along with suggestions for further research. The results of this research also failed to confirm the hypothesized effect of athleticism and gender on the number of questions attempted by the participants.

The Effects of Gender and Athletic Experience onSpatial Ability Test ScoresSpatial ability is the ability to judge the relations of objects in space, to judge shapes and sizes, to mentally manipulate objects, to visualize the effects of putting objects together, and to mentally turn objects over or around. Tasks and jobs that correlate with spatial ability are generally considered male sex typed, which causes women to receive less training and experience in these areas. Jobs that correlate with spatial ability are heavily reliant on skills in mathematics, science, engineering, art, drafting, medicine, and mechanics. On timed tests that are used to measure these skills women tend to score lower than men, which in the past has led to hypotheses presented by the biological theorists that spatial ability is a gender specific ability that men are more likely to possess in higher degrees because of late maturation (Waber, 1976) or a greater degree of brain lateralization (Buffery & Gray, 1972; Levy, 1976) to name a few. Recent research however, has provided evidence that spatial ability may not be biologically gender specific, but may be more related to factors such as hormonal levels or spatial experience. Most of the literature of the importance of spatial ability deals with the scores of tests that are designed to measure spatial aptitudes that are typically related to aspects of math (geometry), science (physics, chemistry), and drawing (mechanical, architectural). This literature is reviewed in order to establish the importance of experience and training as an influential factor in the development of spatial ability. Then, more literature on gender differences in spatial ability test scores are reviewed in order to determine whether spatial ability related jobs are more frequently occupied by men or women. This research is then used to examine whether levels in spatial ability can be predetermined by biological factors as well as experiencial factors that favor the male gender. Two major studies that examined the importance of spatial training and experience on spatial ability test scores, was conducted by Fennema and Sherman, (1977) and Baenninger and Newcombe (1989). Baenninger and Newcombe performed meta-analysis research in order to determine the effects of spatial experience and training on spatial ability. Their first hypothesis was that spatial experience (which is gained through special activity participation) is directly related to higher scores on spatial ability tests. Their second hypothesis was that training increases spatial ability test performances in both sexes.The first hypothesis explains the gender differences in testing scores as a result of the societal sex typing of certain activities. As children, young girls are more likely to involve themselves in female sex typed activities such as drawing, cooking and playing with dolls. Young boys are more likely to engage in male sex typed activities that provide three-dimensional experience. These activities include sports such as basketball, football, soccer, archery, geometry and drafting (Newcombe, Bandura, & Taylor, 1983). Following Sherman’s (1974) hypothesis that predicts that better spatial ability can be obtained through frequent exposure to spatial activities, Baenninger and Newcobe tested participants with the Spatial Activities Questionnaire (Newcombe, Bandur, & Taylor, 1983) and two other tests in order to conduct the research. Their results support that, although the improvement is minimal, for both sexes spatial activity participation is related to better scores of spatial ability.Their second hypothesis sought to test whether training increased these scores, what type of training (and how much), and whether males already have experienced a certain necessary level of spatial experience that females have not. Should this hypothesis prove to be true, after training, the scores of both sexes would increase, but the females would show more increase than the males, indicating that the males are operating at a level nearer to their maximum potential (Goldstein & Chance, 1965). For this research study, they divided participants into two groups. The first group was the control group, and the second was a test-retest experimental group. The subjects selected for inclusion were grouped on three dimensions. The first dimension was gender, the second dimension was training, and the third was duration of training. Training referred to the content of practice, and was defined as repeated administration of a sample spatial ability measure, which had to be spatial in nature. It had three levels, specific (practice with only one spatial measure), general (practice that included several examples from more than one type of spatial measure), and indirect (practice that was not spatial in training but was related to spatial ability). Duration of training referred to the length of time the participants were exposed to the training, and it also had three levels, short (brief or single administrations over a course of less than three weeks), medium (administration in a course that lasted under a semester or more than one administration in a course lasting over three weeks), long (training lasting a full semester). The results showed that both sexes increased about equally, which meant that with training, spatial ability will increase but more training is required for females in order for them to reach the asymptotic level.Another study done by Fennema and Sherman (1977) examined sex-differences in mathematical achievement scores. The purpose of their research was to examine the degree to which spatial ability was related to mathematics achievement, and to examine whether males are truly superior. The results of their research reveal that previous mathematical learning, strongly effects the mathematical achievement scores, and that spatial visualization is indeed relevant to mathematics. Their research also suggests that socio-cultural factors highly effects the mathematical confidence in females, which can account for a significant amount of the sex-related differences. These two studies provide sufficient evidence that socio-cultural factors effect spatial ability and scholastic achievement in females, beginning at a very young age. This is suggested by understanding that spatial activity participation, spatial training and experience are viewed by society as male sex typed activities that girls learn are inappropriate at such a young age, that they are limited in the exploration of spatial relationships, thus causing delayed development in spatial ability. The outcome of this delay, causes school-age girls and boys to function at different levels in mathematics. The biological model supports many different factors concerning the development of spatial ability. One of these factors centers on sex hormones such as androgen, estrogen and testosterone. Many studies have been done that first separate the participants into groups of high or low levels of these hormones, then compare the scores of spatial ability tests in order to see if they reflect a degree of differences. One of these studies done by Lord and Leonard (1997), who compared the scores of spatial ability tests taken by athletes and non-athletes. They sought to determine whether the hormonal levels of athletes (which have higher androgen and testosterone levels) led to higher spatial ability scores than those of non-athletes (who have lower levels of male hormones and higher levels of estrogen. Past research reported that men with high levels of androgen score significantly lower on spatial ability tests than men with low androgen levels, and that women with higher levels of androgen score higher than women with low androgen levels (Peterson, 1976). Their research concluded that although sport participation at high level of competition is associated with high spatial ability in women, this does not hold true for men, who did score lower on the spatial ability test than the control group. They also found that while high blood levels of androgen may be associated with lower spatial ability test scores in men, androgen level does not seem to have a relevant effect on females. Their research does not support the contention that blood androgen levels are associated with higher levels of spatial ability. Other research studies done by Broverman, Klaiber, Kobayashi, and Vogel (1968), proposed the theory of the automatization cognitive style. According to this theory, strong automatizers perform better at rapid, over-learned repetitive tasks such as typing, speech and reading. Weak automatizers perform better at tasks that require the inhibition of initial responses and reorganization of perceptual elements such as mental rotation, space visualization and other spatial ability tasks. According to this research, boys with greater androgen levels (measured by physical examination) were strong automatizers, while those with low androgen levels were weak automatizers. The conclusion of their research states that a balance favoring androgenic activity influences strong automatization, and a balance favoring cholinergic activity (activity which increases the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, which is associated with memory and cognitive functioning) would enhance weak automatization. The ability to perform spatial ability tasks fast is assessed as an acquired skill that is learned through repetitive training. In order to assess the effects of time pressure on spatial ability tests, test scores are first assessed using an interval scale, in which they are put in rank order based on their raw test scores. In the interval scale, the difference between each test score is equal in numeric value to any other test score. There is an equal interval, and negative numbers are used. The reasoning behind interval scale use for the data computations in the time-pressured situation is that questions left unanswered are deducted from the section. After the interval scale has been used the data in then further analyzed using a ratio scale, which does not deduct the number of unanswered questions from the total test score. Instead the ratio scale, which does not use negative numbers in data computations, is used to find the true test score (the amount of correct questions divided by the amount of questions attempted). After the data has been organized using these two scales, both scales are compared to each other to determine the whether there is a significant test score difference in time pressured situations. Two research studies that were done to measure the effects of testing procedure on the test score differences between the sexes, were performed by Voyer (1997) and Goldstein, Haldane and Mitchell (1990). Goldstein et al compared the results of male and female scores in both timed and un-timed situations and found that males fared better in the timed raw-score condition but not in the un-timed or in the ratio-score conditions. This evidence was further supported by Voyer’s study, which examined the amount of questions attempted by each sex the amount that were correct or incorrect in both times and un-timed situations. The findings of his research support Goldstein et al. (1990) that when scores are compared on a ratio scale, the magnitude of sex differences were reduced, and that sex differences in timed conditions are much greater than in un-timed conditions. The literature presented in the above paragraphs all provide a strong basis for understanding that spatial ability is a combination of biological factors such as gender, and socio-cultural factors that influence the development of spatial ability in both males and females. Spatial experience gained from activities and/or training may be a result of women with higher male hormone levels actively seeking out and exploring areas that are generally considered male sex typed. Recent research has suggested that the gap, which in the past has reflected gender differences in spatial ability tests scores, has begun closing as each generation enters the workforce. Understanding the impact of sports (athletics) on spatial ability in both male and female is important to psychology because it can provide insight for new methods that seek to improve scholastic achievement which later promotes individual success (marked by the communal incentives such as a raise or a promotion) and societal success (reflected by a boost in the economy), by focusing on fundamental elements that effect the development of spatial ability. The purpose of this research was to determine whether female athletes, through enhanced athletic training and spatial experience gained from situational repetition and exposure will perform better than non-athletic females, non-athletic males and athletic males on time pressured spatial ability tests. A second purpose of this research was to determine whether male athletes and female athletes would attempt to answer more questions in the time pressured situation. It was hypothesized that female athletes would attempt to answer more questions than non-athletic males and females, and score higher than non-athletic females and athletic males on a timed spatial ability test. It was also hypothesized that athletic males would attempt to answer the most questions, and that both groups of athletes (male and female) would yield results that reflect a higher amount of bimodal distribution than non-athletes.


Participants A convenient sample of N=66 undergraduate students from Loyola University, 38 participants were members of a varsity sports team (27 male; 11 female) and 26 participants were undergraduate students not participating in a varsity level sport (7 male; 19 female). The students were volunteers who learned of the study from announcements made by instructors. The psychology undergraduate students were offered credit for their participation in the study, and the athletes were offered no reward. Registration for participation was conditional on the participant’s signing a consent form. Participants were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Materials The dependant variable was spatial ability, which had three levels (mechanical comprehension, space visualization and mental rotation) and was measured using a spatial abilities test composed of three sections. The first section consisted of 20 questions from the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test-Form T (Bennett et al., 1940), the second section consisted of 25 questions from the Employee Aptitude Survey Test 5-Space Visualization (Form A, revised) (Grimsley, Ruch, Warren & Ford, 1957), and the third section consisted of 32 questions selected from the Revised Minnesota Paper Form Boards Test. Questions selected for the second and third sections were systematically selected (selected by a chosen process or count), and the questions selected for the first section were selected by the researcher-who chose them on account of their relevance to the research. The independent variables were athletic participation, which had two levels (athlete or non-athlete), and sex, which also had two levels (male or female). Athleticism was determined based on the self-reported responses from the participants on the demographic questionnaire. Those who circled any of the first four of the six possible responses, were placed in the non-athletic group, those who circled either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ were placed into the athletic group. Sex was also determined by the responses of the participants on their demographic questionnaire. This was a quasi-experimental, non-equivalent group design. The proposed analyses: Data was collected from the demographic questionnaire, and the participants were split into two groups- male and female. An ordinal scale was used to split the participants into two more groups at the median (athletic males, non-athletic males, athletic females and non-athletic females). The data collected from the spatial ability test was analyzed using F-tests and ANOVA. The answer sheet was a two-page packet created by the researcher on computer, which was separated into three sections. The first section of the spatial ability test was for the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension questions, and was composed of questions 1 thru 20. Next to each number were three letters (A, B, C) and the participant was required to circle the letter that corresponded with the answer they perceived to be correct. The second section of the spatial ability test was the Employee Aptitude Survey Test 5, which was composed of questions 21 thru 53. In this section, there were five groups of five fill-in-the-blank questions, each group related to one lettered block on each of the cubes. For example, the first five questions pertained to block A, specifically asking the participant to write in each of the five blanks how many blocks the block with the letter A on it was touching going down the line of blocks in numerical order (blank one was the correct blank for block A in cube one, blank two was the correct blank for block A in cube two, blank three was the correct blank for block A in cube three, blank four was the correct blank for block A in cube four and blank five was the correct blank for block A in cube five). The next group of five questions used the same format but pertained to block B, the third group pertained to block C, the fourth group pertained to block D and the fifth group pertained to block E. The third section of the spatial ability test were questions taken from the Revised Minnesota Paper Form Boards Test (Lickert & Quasha, 1969), and was composed of questions 54 thru 78. Next to each number was one of five possible letters (A, B, C, D, E), and the participant was required to mentally piece together groups of shapes that were given as a question in the upper left hand box, and circle the appropriate letter of the box that contained correctly pieced together shape.MaterialsThe informed consent form- made sure the participant understood what the goals of the research study were, what their role in this research would entail, how long it would take, that hey were able to ask questions before the procedure, that they have a right to secrecy and privacy, that they could drop out at any time, and that they have ways of contacting the primary investigator in case of any problems. The demographic questionnaire consisted of twelve questions, each relating to one area of the research study. Questions 2 (gender), 11 (rate your own athletic ability) and 12 (list all the sports you have ever played and when) were all used in determining the four groups. In order to separate the participants into groups, an ordinal scale was used on both the male and female groups of 50, in order to divide them right at the median in terms of question number 12. All other questions on the demographic questionnaire served to help put the participants in an order. The spatial ability test was composed 79 questions taken from three different tests that are used to measure spatial ability. Section one took 20 questions from the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test- Form T (Bennett et al., 1940), which is composed of 68 questions that measure the understanding of mechanics and physics in practical situations. The 20 questions were selected by the researcher, who judged the questions of their relevance in spatial orientation, imagery and perception in order to exclude questions unrelated to the study.Section two took 25 questions from the Employee Aptitude Survey Test 5- Space Visualization (Form A, revised) (Grimsley, Ruch, Warren & Ford, 1957), which was designed to test mental rotation and space orientation. Using systematic selection, every other block was used (each block is used to answer five questions), for a total of 5 blocks and 25 questions. Section three took 32 questions from the Revised Minnesota Paper Form Boards Test (Lickert & Quasha, 1969) which is the paper-pencil version of the Minnesota Spatial Relations Test. It contains 64 questions that require the mental rotation of shapes. The 32 questions were systematically selected – every other question (all evens) was selected.

Design and ProcedureParticipants entered the room and sat down in a desk. On the desk was a copy of the spatial ability test (face down) stapled to the demographic questionnaire (face up) underneath the answer sheet, the consent form and a pencil. The experimenter read the consent form out loud to the class, she then asked the participants to sign the consent form and fill out the demographic questionnaire. After this, they were instructed to turn over the paper and follow along as the instructor read the instructions for the first section out loud. The participants had five minutes to complete as much of the first section as possible. The remaining time was announced after each minute and after the participants were finished, they were to raise their hand, and record the number that he wrote on the board in the blank provided at the end of the section. The experimeter said, “begin” to start the test and at the end of the fifth minute, he called “stop” to end the first section of the test. He repeated this process for each section of the test, the only difference was the time allowed for completion. The first section of the test gave participants five minutes to complete it, the second section gave them three minutes to complete it, and the third section gave them four minutes to complete it. After the third portion had been completed, the participants were debriefed. During the debriefing period, they were allowed to ask questions concerning the study. During this period, the participants will be told about the research focus: spatial ability and its relationship with athletic participation, which in this case was defined as a way to provide spatial experience for females, that the timing of the test was a variable used to indicate whether the experiences of athletes are also used to help solve spatial problems faster than the non-athletes. Generally men perform faster and with more accuracy than women on spatial assessment tests, and that the most favored explanation of this phenomenon is that it is caused by a combination of biological and socio-cultural influences. After the participants were debriefed, they were dismissed and asked to hand in their pencil on the way out.

Results Analysis of the research data indicated that there was no significant difference between the sectional scores of the female athletes and female non-athletes on the first (BCMT) and third (RMPFBT) sections of the spatial ability test. On the second section (EAS) however, a significant difference was indicated by the test scores of the athletic females, who scored higher than the athletic males, non-athletic males and non-athletic females indicating an interaction between unknown variables. On section one (BMCT), the non-athletic males and the athletic males scored significantly higher than the non-athletic and athletic females, and on the third section (RMPFBT) the male athletes, female athletes, male non-athletes and female non-athletes scored in the same range, with little variation between the groups’ scores. All sectional scores were compared, by finding the mean scores of each group. The research also did not support the hypothesis that athletic males would attempt to answer more questions than the athletic females, non-athletic females and non-athletic males.An alpha level of .05 was used for all statistical tests. Upon further analysis the scores from each individual section provided data that indicated significant differences between the sectional scores on the first two sections of the test. On the first section, questions were taken from The Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test, and results provided evidence that supports past research findings that non-athletic males would score highest on the mechanical comprehension test, F(1,56) = 4.7, p= .035. Past research has indicated that men score higher than women on this test, the ANOVA of the scores for the non-athletic and athletic males (M =.57, SD = .18), were compared with the non-athletic and athletic female scores (M = .47, SD = .14).On section two of the spatial ability test a significant un-hypothesized interaction occurred between variables on the test scores of the athletic females (M = .78, SD = .18), who scored notably higher than the athletic males (M = .58, SD = .32), the non-athletic females (M = .50, SD = .29), and the non-athletic males, (M = .68, SD = .30). The hypothesis that female athletes would do better was supported by the ANOVA, F(1,56) = 5.3, p = .03.The scores on the third section, whose questions were taken from the Revised Minnesota Paper Form Boards Test, were expected to yield significant results. Test results however, failed to reject the null hypothesis, with the order of scoring again led by the non-athletic males (M=.18, SD=.04), then the athletic males (M=.18, SD=.10), followed by the athletic females (M=.16, SD=.12), and finally the non-athletic females (M=.16, SD=.09), F (1, 56) = .03, p = .9.

Discussion This research study sought to find evidence in support of two main hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that athletic experience provides a significant amount of spatial experience, which helps with spatial ability development for females. It was hypothesized that on a spatial ability test, female athletes would score higher than non-athletic females and athletic males, but not as high as the non-athletic males. The second part of the hypothesis was that athletes would attempt to answer more questions on a time-pressured spatial abilities test than non-athletes, and answer them with greater accuracy. The female athletes did not score significantly higher on either the first section (the mechanical comprehension test) or the third section (the mental rotations test) than the non-athletic females. This would indicate many different findings. One possible explanation for this failure to reject the null hypothesis would be that all of the females included in the study have had significant contact with sports in the past, but when compared to the other girls they think they are inferior in experience and therefore shy away from male sex-typed questions by devaluing the content of the question (Goldstein, Haldane & Mitchell, 1990). Another possible explanation is that maybe the degree to which we measure female athletes is being raised by the increased participation of young children in a wider variety of sports. In order to examine this possibility it would be necessary to look at the participants’ past in depth to control for all of the possible variables (Lord & Leonard, 1997).Although the female athletes did not score ahead of either of the male groups on the first and third sections, the second section provided new and exciting evidence of a possible connection between space visualization and some other variable. Almost all of the athletic women tested were soccer players, and almost all of the athletic males tested were baseball players. Baseball is a sport that has been related to linear spatial ability which just deals with back and forth motions, and therefore is not correlated with high levels of spatial ability, especially on mental rotation and space visualization (Davids, 1988). Soccer on the other hand, has been related to improved spatial ability because it is considered a fast-paced ball sport that constantly demands its players to visualize an entire field, and used each angle and possibility (Davids, Burwitz & Williams, 1993). These past studies provide support for a hypothesis concerning the type of athletic experience one may receive from sports training, that can be either linear (baseball, softball, football) or nonlinear (soccer, basketball). The second part of the hypothesis was not really supported, even though the number of items answered by the athletic males were slightly higher than both groups of females, and even higher than the non-athletic males, which suggested that there may a competitive factor that may be measured by hormone level or focus of attention (Lord & Leonard, 1997). The lack of support for this hypothesis also shows that the females were perhaps not afraid to answer the questions (Fennema & Sherman, 1977), but slight evidence did find that the test scores were higher on each section-especially the third- for the groups who did not answer the most questions. This suggested that the participants took more time to answer the questions correctly (Goldstein, Haldane & Mitchell, 1990). There are other factors that could have affected the amount of questions answered by the male athletes, such as the fact that they were taken out of baseball practice to take the test, and although some of them were prepared to take it, the majority of the players were not concerned with how well they did because it did not count against them. They were also prepared to play baseball, and instead found themselves taking a spatial ability test. They were volunteers, but did not choose the time they could take the test. Although there was minimal support for the hypothesis that male athletes would attempt to answer the most questions, there was not a high enough level of significance to reject the null hypothesis. This study helped provide information to support many past research studies that have been conducted on spatial ability. Although there was not enough evidence to support the use of athletics as a tool for spatial ability development in young girls, insight was presented that suggests a specific type of athletic activity might be the most beneficial to spatial development. The contribution of this finding will perhaps better define the type of athletic activity that may be beneficial to the development of spatial ability- especially in space visualization. Future research concerning this area might want to separate many groups of athletic teams into two general categories of spatial sport performance-linear and nonlinear- to see if the general directional path of the ball within the sport effects spatial ability development, and if three dimensional space visualization is related to the type of ball play. One of the problems with the data provided by this research is that many other variables could have affected the test scores. Examples of these were the time of day the athletes took the test, and their awareness and expectations. It probably would have been more beneficial to the test scores if the subjects were asked not to speak or make any sounds at all during the test, seeing that one person’s groaning could influence the rest to treat the research as a joke and not be serious about it. In order to provide any sufficient data for this field of research, extensive time and effort must be put into the study. Spatial ability is determined by many factors as well as experience that must be tested for, including childhood experiences and activities. Although difficult to acquire information for, future researchers might want to look intensely at the historical background of the participant, from childhood, through development, to adulthood

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