Spatial ability

Spatial ability is a complex, multifaceted concept that many researchers have worked to decode (Kyllonen et al., 1984). Previous researchers have identified the factors that constitute spatial ability (Kyllonen et al., 1984; Sorby, 1999). For example, early researchers characterized spatial ability as a human’s cognitive ability to visually perceive shapes, positions, and forms when mentally rotated or manipulated (Kyllonen et al., 1984). Researchers have also described it as an innate ability to visualize that is partially linked to general intelligence (Sorby, 1999). More recently, spatial ability has been identified as an individual ability, comprised of multiple skills used to navigate the visual field by transforming or manipulating 2D or 3D objects (Suh & Cho, 2020).

With its convoluted nature, spatial ability is thought to be a fundamental cognitive skill for the creative process and execution of design (Williams & Sutton, 2011). Moreover, researchers suggest the importance of cognitive spatial abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM)-related professions because of the need to form nonvisible concepts into visible ideas (Suh & Cho, 2020). STEAM-related fields specific to product design and creativity use different spatial components—e.g., spatial visualization and mental rotation—that are integral to design performance (Suh & Cho, 2020). Through the improvement of spatial ability skills, important design performance skills such as creativity can be improved in education (Cho, 2017). In a similar vein, researchers suggested that the lack of spatial ability can result in poor spatial design performance (Liao, 2017). This indicates that those who lack the ability or experience in spatial activities or abilities may encounter difficulties in learning or performing spatial ability-centered tasks.

Spatial ability is a key factor in creative design performance in 2D and 3D design applications (Gitimu & Workman, 2007; Suh & Cho, 2020). Thus, researchers have found a relationship between spatial abilities and design ability (Suh & Cho, 2020). Numerous researchers suggest that through training, spatial abilities can be enhanced using assessment tools that challenge spatial activities (Linn & Petersen, 1985). Linn and Petersen (1985) compared spatial abilities in participants who completed spatial training and participants who had no formal training. Results from this study confirmed the notion that prior training can enhance spatial abilities (Linn & Petersen, 1985). Another study found that the level of spatial abilities differs among individuals (Gitimu & Workman, 2007). These individual differences are integral in understanding spatial ability and its complexity. Differences in abilities consist of how a person evaluates, perceives, understands, and solves problems in the spatial environment (Gitimu & Workman, 2007). Moreover, spatial experiences influence an individual’s ability to process and create during spatial activities (Khoza & Workman, 2008). Researchers have also identified various spatial ability tools that can be used to measure the sub-dimensions of spatial ability such as spatial visualization and mental rotation (Dere & Kalelioglu, 2020; Hoffler, 2010; Lin & Chen, 2016; Lohman, 1979) .

Sub-dimensions of spatial ability

Spatial ability encompasses numerous subconstructs that vary in skills and components. According to Suh and Cho (2020), the concept of spatial ability and its sub-constructs varies in definition. Other researchers have mainly identified two sub-dimensions that are closely associated with assessment tools related to 3D objects. These two are an individual’s ability to mentally visualize the object (i.e., spatial visualization) and rotate it (i.e., spatial mental imagery) (Dere & Kalelioglu, 2020; Hoffler, 2010; Lin & Chen, 2016; Linn & Petersen, 1985; Lohman, 1979).

Spatial visualization

This skill is considered one of the most important sub-dimensions of spatial abilities. Possessing this skill is critical to a wide range of design-centered professions and STEAM education (Williams & Sutton, 2011; Suh & Cho, 2020). This is because spatial visualization skills have an impact on STEAM education achievement and performance (Buckley et al., 2018). Spatial visualization was identified as a process of imaging movement and transformation of the object, and its visuals according to changes in the objects (i.e., twisting or folding the object) (McGee, 1979). During the process of spatial visualization, people process complex spatial information about objects including whether they are folded and/or transposed (French et al., 1963). Researchers have identified spatial visualization as a multifaceted ability to mentally manipulate a spatial configuration and create a representation of the configuration from a new perspective (Suh & Cho, 2020). Furthermore, researchers have uncovered a relationship between spatial visualization and obtaining information to understand the development of 3D images (Gobert, 1999). Pervious researchers suggest spatial visualization acts as a bridge from the conceptualization stage of design to the transformation of design concepts into sketches (Linn & Petersen, 1985). Spatial visualization abilities have been examined using the Paper Folding Test (PFT) (French et al., 1963; Olkun, 2003). French et al. (1963) applied the paper folding process to examine how people imagine the spatial visualization process involved with folding and unfolding of a piece of paper. Later, the PFT was created by Ekstrom et al. (1976), where it consists of mentally visualizing the outcome of folding and unfolding a configuration after a hole has been punched. Researchers created this test to measure participants’ varying aptitudes of spatial visualization skills. Previous researchers showed the PFT identifies how people solve problems when presented with visual information (Burte et al., 2019), where they determined that the PFT does not assess individual differences in spatial abilities (Burte et al., 2019). Although limitation of PFT lies on that the measurement is based on the mental process of 2D objects (i.e., punching and folding a piece of paper) (e.g., Lin and Chen, 2016), lots of previous studies focusing on apparel design education adopted the PFT to measure students’ spatial visualization ability (Ahn and Workman, 2012; Workman and Caldwell, 2007; Workman and Lee, 2004). This shows that the spatial visualization ability to transpose 2D patterns into different formation is particularly important for a garment making process (Ahn and Workman, 2012; Workman and Caldwell, 2007; Workman and Lee, 2004).

Spatial mental imagery

This imagery is the ability to “see with the mind’s eye” when seeing an object or scene mentally rotated (Wimmer et al., 2015). Compared to spatial visualization focusing on complex information related to changes of objects’ form (i.e., folding), spatial mental imagery is identified as an ability to engage rapidly and accurately in analyzing a pair of stimuli in a mental rotation process (Ekstrom et al., 1976). Lin and Chen (2016) identified the difference between special visualization and spatial mental imagery, and they mentioned that the focus of the mental imagery is on the individual ability to rotate objects to manipulate its position and angle within 3D environment. Other researchers found that this skill involves mental manipulation of an object and its relationship to other parts of the object (Compos, 2009; Pellegrino et al., 1984; Peters et al., 1995). To measure spatial mental imagery, Campos (2009) developed a test based on the visualization aspect of mental imagery—the Measure of the Ability to Form Spatial Mental Imagery (MASMI). This test involves the unfolding a cube with different signs on each side and the participant has to mentally rotate the cube and visualize it together (Campos, 2009). Spatial mental imagery is said to be one of the most often measured with another sub-dimension of spatial ability—spatial visualization (Hoffler, 2010). In a study attempting to identify commonalities and differences among sub-dimensions of spatial ability, Miyake et al. (2001) established a correlation between spatial visualization and spatial mental imagery. Both require a certain level of spatial memory such as the ability to imagine an object and store the information temporarily for its new arrangement (Hoffler, 2010; Miyake et al., 2001).

Apparel design spatial ability (ASVT) and applications in a virtual environment (ASVT-V)

The ASVT developed by Workman et al. (1999) measures spatial visualization ability in transforming 2D garments into a 3D format. The spatial visualization measured by ASVT is a domain-specific ability for students majoring in apparel design and product development (Workman et al., 1999). Previous researchers have analyzed the effects of educational training on the ASVT scores and identified the relationships of domain-specific spatial ability and general spatial ability (Table 1). Through the development of the test specific to measuring apparel design spatial abilities, Workman et al., (1999) found that this test can be implemented as a method of training participants in improving their spatial abilities. Workman and Lee (2004) examined how culture and training effects an individual’s spatial performance of tasks by using two different measurements: ASVT and the PFT. They found that individuals are influenced by the environmental factors that surround them (e.g., educational training) (Workman & Lee, 2004). They discovered that when students received training in classes, their scores improved on both tests (Workman & Lee, 2004). Based on this discovery, Khoza & Workman (2008) examined the effect of an individual’s environmental factors in relation to learning style and spatial performance. For this study, the ASVT was used to examine the relation among participants’ spatial tasks and learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, or reading/writing modes). They found that students in upper-level apparel design courses showed higher scores on ASVT, and there was a cultural difference on their learning styles (i.e., United States vs. Swazi students).

Table 1 Previous studies: domain-specific spatial ability in apparel design education

When examining training, Workman and Caldwell (2007) found that there was a significant improvement in spatial visualization abilities among students who received training. This study used a student-led learning process whereby the students were actively engaged in the learning process of using critical thinking and problem solving (i.e., indirect training). By investigating information processing on apparel-related spatial performance using the measures of ASVT and the strategical information processing style, Gitimu et al. (2005) found that students’ performance was influenced by hands-on educational training and not the strategic information process style. Gitimu and Workman (2007) also indicated that the students’ strategy choices determined their performance on the ASVT. They found that individual students used difference strategies to solve problems related to spatial tasks (ASVT). Later, Ahn and Workman (2012) developed a spatial skill measurement (i.e., Estimate of Linear Measurements of Full-Scale Lines) to examine whether full-scale garments developed from students can be improved through educational training and estimated through the measurement. They found that training provided in apparel design classes contributed to spatial skills necessary for them to make full-size garments.

Further, a few researchers identified the role of spatial ability in apparel studies. For example, Park et al. (2011) conducted an analysis to explore 3D simulation technology as an effective tool for enhancing participants’ spatial visualization skills. This study examined apparel design and product development college majors with various experience levels and spatial abilities. Using three different instructional methods (i.e., 3D simulation, conventional lectures, and patternmaking practices), the results showed that students’ abilities to mentally visualize the flat pattern on a body were greatly improved (Park et al., 2011). Results also indicated the effectiveness of 3D technology as a tool for improving students’ spatial abilities when combined with traditional lecture and patterning-making practices. They suggest that students’ spatial ability in visualizing flat patterns into rendering processes over virtual body models can be improved by adopting 3D simulation technology. Even though this study did not measure ASVT scores, the results suggest that apparel-specific spatial ability can be applied to a virtual environment. In addition, 3D simulation technology has been identified as an effective tool for college students majoring in design programs (Park et al., 2011; Suh & Cho, 2020); however, previously adopted ASVT scores were measured within a 2D format (i.e., a paper form). As students majoring in apparel design and product development have attended courses incorporating 3D visualization and/or simulation technologies, the ASVT might not fully uncover the domain-specific spatial ability for these students. Thus, this study applies the ASVT in a virtual environment (i.e., ASVT–V) and examines how it performs in measuring domain-specific spatial ability for the discipline of apparel design and product development.

As discussed above, previous literature in the field of apparel design education reported a positive relationship between ASVT scores and general senses of special ability (Workman et al., 1999; Workman & Lee, 2004; Park et al., 2011). Regarding a special ability in transforming 2D to 3D, previous scholars have suggested that domain-specific spatial ability, such as spatial visualization from 2 to 3D interior design, is positively correlated with general spatial ability that consists of mental rotation and spatial visualization (Suh & Cho, 2020). Therefore, we hypothesized that domain-specific ASVT-V scores for apparel design and product development will be positively related with students’ spatial visualization and mental imagery scores.

H1: General spatial ability—the spatial visualization and mental imagery scores—will be positively related with ASVT-V scores.

Influence of education on domain-specific special ability (ASVT-V) and performance

In this study, we suggest that education in apparel design courses that require spatial ability positively influences domain-specific spatial ability (i.e., ASVT-V scores), which eventually increases students’ performance in their courses. Domain-specific spatial skills are integral in the ability to mentally picture 3D shapes (Martin-Gutiérrez et al., 2010). These skills are examined in various fields of education, such as interior design, product design, engineering, and apparel design (Chang, 2014; Martin-Dorta et al., 2008).

Overall, previous literature indicates that spatial skills are a key factor in creative performance and conceptual design, and they can be developed through education (Chang, 2014; János & Gyula, 2019; Onyancha et al., 2009). For example, Chang (2014) discovered a positive effect on creativity and spatial comprehension when using CAD software in a product design course (i.e., designing a chair). Results from this study indicated that courses utilizing CAD are effective not only for greatly increasing spatial skills but also for students’ performance in these courses (Chang, 2014). Martín-Dorta et al. (2008) examined spatial ability specific to the field of engineering where the development of spatial skills is directly linked to the success of professional work and academic performance (e.g., Martin-Gutiérrez et al., 2010). The researchers developed a remedial course to improve engineering students’ spatial abilities using 3D CAD modeling (Martín-Dorta et al., 2008). Results indicated that a remedial course proved effective in students improving and gaining spatial ability skills, which consequently improved their performance in the course. Continuing to measure engineering students’ spatial skills, János and Gyula (2019) examined students’ learning and understandings of 3D technology and their spatial capability. The researchers developed a 3D CAD course measuring students’ abilities at the beginning of the semester and again at the end (János & Gyula, 2019). Similar to previous studies, results suggested that 3D CAD courses improve the spatial skills of students. Results also suggest that CAD modeling activities bridge a gap for students who have poor spatial ability skills (Dere & Kalelioglu, 2020; János & Gyula, 2019). In addition, adopting a Conceive Design Implement and Operate (CDIO) teaching strategy, Haung and Lin (2017) explored how 3D modeling courses impact the spatial ability skills of college students in non-design related departments. CDIO integrated with 3D modeling technologies combines both thinking and practice. This study investigated differences among learners and the improvement of various spatial ability subdimensions by combining both CDIO and 3D modeling technology and materials (Haung & Lin, 2017). In this study, students were tasked with the challenge of developing a product concept, completing a 3D modeling, and producing a final product (Haung & Lin, 2017). Results indicated that 3D modeling technologies integrated with CDIO resulted in students developing and improving their sub-dimensional skills of spatial ability and performance in the class (i.e., learning outcomes; Haung & Lin, 2017). Moreover, spatial ability is a necessary cognitive ability for apparel design and product development (Workman & Lee, 2004). Previous scholars supported that taking domain-specific education (e.g., Design CAD classes) is efficient in improving students’ visualization skills and overall class performance (Park et al., 2011). Those scholarly efforts indicate that domain-specific education can improve specific spatial ability required in the field, and consequently increase students’ performance in the course. In the apparel design and product development education, previous research indicated that training led to improvements in spatial visualization ability (Khoza & Workman, 2008; Workman & Lee, 2004). As ASVT has contributed to the understanding of how to improve spatial availability and class performance for students majoring apparel design and product development programs (Gitimu et al., 2005; Linn & Petersen, 1985; Toomey & Heo, 2019), we suggest that taking domain-specific courses (i.e., major-related courses) would improve scores from ASVT-V and students’ overall performance in those courses. Therefore, following hypotheses were suggested.

H2: When students take more apparel design and product development courses, their ASVT-V scores will increase.

H3: When students have higher ASVT-V scores, they will perceive a greater performance in apparel design and product development courses.

Effect of domain-specific special ability on student performance

Lastly, we suggest that when apparel design major students take more domain-specific courses, they can increase their performance in those courses. Onyancha et al. (2009) suggest that targeted training can be an effective way for improving spatial abilities. For example, mechanical engineering students who enrolled in an entry-level CAD course were divided into three groups based on their spatial ability level (e.g., Low group, Intermediate group, and High group) (Onyancha et al., 2009). Students in the low group received target training, students in the intermediate group (experimental group) were offered training but did not have to opt in, and students in the high group (control group) did not receive any training (Onyancha et al., 2009). Results from this study indicated that students who received targeted training enhanced their performance in the class with their improved spatial ability skills, while students with non-training did not improve their performance (Onyancha et al., 2009).

Similar to apparel design and product development, interior design is another field where spatial ability skills are essential. Interior design involves the use of 2D and 3D drawing formats, including planning, elevation, and physical models (Suh & Cho, 2020). Adopting general spatial ability tests and the domain-specific measurement (i.e., Architecture and Interior design domain-specific Spatial Ability Test), they examined student proficiency in 2D-to-3D visualization. Importantly, they found that the domain-specific education consequently improved students’ performance in design courses (Suh & Cho, 2020). Therefore, we suggest that when apparel design major students take more major-related courses, they will perceive a greater performance in the courses they took. Thus, the following hypothesis is suggested. All hypotheses are presented in Fig. 1.

H4: When students take more apparel design and product development courses, they will perceive a greater performance in those courses.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Conceptual model (ASVT-V: Apparel Spatial Visualization Test applied to Virtual environment)

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