Gender, mental rotations, and introductory physics

Presentation Date: 

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Portland, OR
In this talk we examine an often-cited claim for gender differences in STEM participation: cognitive differences on tests of spatial ability explain achievement differences in physics. We specifically investigate the role of mental rotations in physics achievement and problem-solving, viewing mental rotations as a tool that students can use on physics problems. We first look at student survey results for lower-level introductory students, finding a small, but significant correlation between performance on a mental rotations test and course achievement. In contrast, we find no such relationship for students enrolled in the honors introductory course. To understand the role that mental rotations plays in physics problem-solving, we examine how students use this tool on highly-spatial physics problems in student interviews and find that mental rotation is neither necessary nor sufficient. These results suggest that the robust sex differences on mental rotation tests are of little relevance for achievement in introductory physics.