Gender Mediation Effects of Training for a Mental Rotation Task
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
FLANAGAN, C. -. (2003). Gender Mediation Effects of Training for a Mental Rotation Task. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Gender Mediation Effects of Training for a Mental Rotation Task
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
Males consistently outperform females on many tasks of spatial ability with the most robust differences occurring in tasks of mental rotation. The basis for such differences arises from genetic and social variation. The ability to understand and mediate these effects has been the topic of much research in the past. The purpose of this study is to examine the possible improvement of females on a mental rotation task following a computerized training exercise

Gender differences can be observed in many arenas and the need to understand, and in some instances mediate, such differences becomes apparent. One area of research that has focused on gender difference in performance is the mental rotation test. The mental rotation along with others that measure three-dimensional mental relation tasks are marked by poor female versus male performance on a consistent basis (Gleary & Gilger, 1992). In fact, in their meta-analysis of the effect sizes in 286 studies, Voyer, Voyer, and Bryden (1995) report that the mental rotation task had the “most robust sex differences among all tests included” (p. 265) in their analysis.The effects of overall poor female performance on spatial tasks are also demonstrated in areas such as mathematics (Halpern, 2000). In an effort to mediate gender differences it becomes necessary to understand why such gender differences exist but such a determination is difficult to make. Numerous theories have been proposed that attempt to examine gender variation with regard to spatial ability. The biological theory claims physiological differences are responsible for performance and some evidence has shown that different hemispheres of the brain are activated in males versus females while participating in spatial t asks such as mental rotation (Roberts & Bell, 2000). There are also sociological theories that attempt to explain gender differences in regard to spatial ability. This theory suggests that boys are socialized with toys and activities that help to develop spatial ability while traditional activities of young females do little to develop spatial processing (Baenniger & Newcombe, 1989). Attempts to improve female performance have been conducted and have involved manipulations designed to improve female performance involved research that attempted to alter the environment and medium through which the test is delivered (Kass, Ahlers, & Dugger, 1998). Other lines of research have looked at the effect anxiety on female performance and the possible benefit removing instructions that emphasis the spatial nature of such tasks (Sharps, Price, & Williams, 1994). The development of spatial skills in females through practice sessions could prove beneficial and mediate performance across gender. Some research has been done on the benefits of training for females but this arena is somewhat controversial and has produced mixed results (Saccuzzo, Johnson, & Larson, 1996;Baenniger & Newcombe, 1989 The purpose of the present study is to examine how training via a computerized task will affect female performance on the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) mental rotation test. I propose training through this computer medium will help to mediate vast gender differences on subsequent tests of spatial ability.


Participants consisted of 175 psychology 101 students from four different class sections. The group was composed of 67 men and 108 women. The students received extra credit for participating in this exercise.

The Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) mental rotation test was utilized for this experiment. Part one of the test served as the pretest and part two served as the posttest. The training component of this experiment required computers and a general use lab at the college was selected. All computers had Microsoft Windows 2000 as the operating system. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer program was used to access the website that contained the electronic mental rotation test developed by Chay(2000).

This experiment was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. The initial phase involved testing 175 students with part one of the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) mental rotation test. Participants were given three minutes to complete the 10 items and each class section received identical instruction. Immediately following the testing, students were encouraged to sign up for follow up testing using a computerized version of the mental rotation task created by Chay (2000). Overall, 98 students signed up for the follow up testing but only 64 students arrived at the various testing sessions. These 64 students were instructed to work at a comfortable pace and complete 30 trials on the internet version of the mental rotation test (Chay, 2000). Due to scheduling difficulties and limitation of seats 9 computer-training sessions were held over a period of 3 weeks. The final phase involved post-testing participants that were involved in the training sessions as well as those who did not participate. In an effort to conserve time only 59 subjects were post tested. The group of post-tested participants who received training consisted of six men and 23 women. The group of individuals post-tested who did no participate in training was comprised of 20 women and 10 men. This testing occurred approximately seven weeks after the computer training sessions had ended. The post-test used was part two of the Vandenberg and Kuse (1978) mental rotation test. Data was compiled and scores totaled for each participant following the completion of the post testing and the analysis was conducted.

A paired-samples t test was calculated to compare the mean pretest score to the mean post test score of indivuduals in the training or no training condition. The mean of those with the training was 9.39 (sd=5.09) and the mean of those without training was 9.65 (sd=5.01). No significant differences for training effects were found (t(57)=-.193,p.>.05).

No training effects were found for either gender in regard to this experiment. These results suggest that simple computer training programs have no benefit to either gender (Figure 1) as those without training performed equally (Figure 2). These results support the theory of biologically based sex differences as the overwhelming factor that determines performance on this particular spatial task and not societal expectation. Other evidence supporting this conclusion comes from studies showing that different brain regions and hemispheres are activated in men and women while performing this task (Roberts, 2002) and that mental rotation ability fluctuates with estrogen levels in women (Halpern, 2000). Perhaps the governing principles favoring males on this test of spatial ability cannot be overcome by any intervention, certainly not by one simple training exercise.Although spatial cognition may be strongly influenced by biological factors there is current research that contradicts the current findings of this study and supports the idea that learning and other performance variables such as anxiety may be critical determinates of how well one does on the mental rotation task. Roberts and Bell (2000) found that performance could be improved through training and by altering the medium in which the test is delivered such as computerized version of the task. Other research has shown that performance can also be improved by creating a positive and relaxing environment in which the testing is to take place (Kass, Ahlers, & Dugger, 1998) and by giving instructions that de-emphasize the spatial nature of the task (Sharps, Price, & Williams, 1994).There are several methodological problems with the design of this study. The original test was given to participants in late August, followed by training within three to four weeks time. The follow up testing was done four weeks after the training near the end of November. The time frame was rather large which could explain the lack of effect for the training. Another possible problem with the design was the short nature of the training session. Each participant in the training condition had only one practice session. Perhaps more elaborate training would yield better performance.Future research is needed to examine the causes of discrepancy between the genders on the mental rotation test. With a thorough understanding of the root of such differences between genders educators, researchers, and parents could customize programs to help mediate performance.

ReferencesBaenniger, M., & Newcombe, N. (1989). The role of experience in spatial test performance: A meta-analysis. Sex Roles, 20, 327-345.Chay, J. C. (2000). 3D Mental Rotation Test. [Retrieved on 07/2003 from, D. C. & Gilger, J. W. (1992). Gender differences in three-dimensional mental rotation: A replication. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 153, 115-118.Halpern, D. (2000). Sex differences in cognitive abilities. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers: London. Kass, S.J., Ahlers, R.H., & Dugger, M. (1998). Eliminating gender differences through practice in an applied visual spatial task. Human Performance, 11(4), 337-349.Roberts, J. E. & Bell, M.A. (2000). Sex differences on a computerized mental rotation task disappear with computer familiarization. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 1027-1036.Saccuzzo, D.P., Craig, A.S., Johnson, N.E., & Larson, G.E. (In press). Gender differences in dynamic spatial abilities. Personality and Individual Differences.Sharps, M.J., Price, J.L., & Williams, J.K. (1994). Spatial cognition and gender: Instructional and stimulus influences on mental image rotation performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 413-425.Vandenberg, S. G. & Kuse, A. R. (1978). Mental rotation, a group test of three-dimensional spatial visualization. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 47,599-604.Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M.P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250-270.

Figure 1. The means for males and females who participated in computer training.

Figure 2. The means for males and females who did not have computer training.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Submitted 12/4/2003 9:33:53 AM
Last Edited 12/4/2003 11:51:23 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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