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Showcase July 2013: Teachers’ spatial anxiety relates to 1st- and 2nd-graders’ spatial learning

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Teachers’ spatial anxiety relates to 1st- and 2nd-graders’ spatial learning

Elizabeth A. Gunderson1, Gerardo Ramirez2,

Sian L. Beilock2, and Susan C. Levine (Co-PI)2

1 Temple University and 2 University of Chicago


For the archival version of this research, and the preferred citation, see:

  • Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Beilock, S. L., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Teachers’ spatial anxiety relates to 1st- and 2nd-graders’ spatial learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 196–199. [DOI]

Teachers’ anxiety about a given subject can shape their own students’ math learning by increasing girls’ endorsement of traditional gender stereotypes (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine, 2010). In this study, we ask whether female teachers’ anxiety might also relate to their students’ improvement in spatial skill, an important cognitive ability that supports math learning. Specifically, we examine whether teachers’ spatial anxiety – their emotional reaction to the prospect of engaging in spatial activities – affects 1st- and 2nd-graders’ spatial learning.

Our main hypothesis was that teachers’ anxieties about spatial activities would influence their students’ spatial learning. Unlike previous work examining math anxiety and math learning, we predicted that this relation would not vary as a function of student gender, for two reasons. First, young children may not be as aware of gender stereotypes favoring males in the domain of spatial skill as they are of gender stereotypes relating to math and reading, making it less likely for children to pick up on cues from their teacher that confirm or deny the stereotype.

Second, because spatial skill is not a stand-alone part of the curriculum like math and reading, teachers have more discretion in integrating spatial learning into the classroom (Krakowski, Ratliff, Gomez, & Levine, 2010). This may result in fewer opportunities for spatial learning for both male and female students in classrooms where teachers have higher compared to lower spatial anxiety. Therefore, we predicted that students’ growth in spatial skill across the school year would vary directly as a function of teachers’ spatial anxiety, regardless of student gender.

To test these predictions, we recruited 19 teachers (17 female) and 132 1st- and 2nd-grade students (88 first-graders; 71 females). The students completed an 8-item mental rotation task, adapted from the Spatial Relations subtest of the Primary Mental Abilities Readiness Level (Thurstone, 1974), at the beginning and end of the school year (about 6 months apart). In this task, children were shown an incomplete square and were asked to choose which of 4 shapes would complete the square. We also measured children’s phonological working memory as a control measure (Weschler, 1991).

Teachers completed the Spatial Anxiety Questionnaire (SAQ) at the end of the year (Lawton, 1994). The 8-item SAQ asked teachers to rate how anxious they would feel in different situations involving spatial navigation, such as “Finding your way around in an unfamiliar mall.” Teachers also completed the 25-item short Math Anxiety Rating Scale (sMARS) as a control measure (Alexander & Martray, 1989).

Our results showed that children whose teacher was low in spatial anxiety improved significantly more on the mental rotation task than children whose teacher was high in spatial anxiety (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Students’ mental rotation scores as a function of teacher spatial anxiety (low vs. high) and time of test (beginning vs. end of the year).

We confirmed these results using hierarchical linear model (HLMs), which account for the nesting of students within classrooms. Using this more fine-grained analysis, we again showed that the higher a teachers’ spatial anxiety, the lower students’ end-of-year mental rotation score, controlling for students’ beginning-of-year mental rotation score, phonological working memory, grade level, and teachers’ math anxiety. The results did not differ as a function of teacher gender or student gender.

In summary, we found that teachers’ spatial anxiety robustly predicted how much 1st- and 2nd-graders improved in spatial skill over the school year. This may occur if teachers with high levels of spatial anxiety simply avoid introducing spatial activities in the classroom, limiting students’ opportunities to engage in spatial reasoning and therefore decreasing spatial learning. Alternately, teachers with high spatial anxiety may choose less effective spatial activities or present them in a less effective manner than teachers with low spatial anxiety. Teachers with higher levels of spatial anxiety may also be less supportive of students who engage in spatial thinking (e.g., diagramming a math word problem), thus depressing students’ ability to practice spatial thinking in the classroom.

Given the importance of spatial skill for STEM achievement, our findings highlight the need to address teachers’ negative feelings about spatial activities. Recent research by SILC researchers suggests that teachers’ spatial anxiety can be reduced through a week-long professional development intervention where teachers learn about how to teach spatial reasoning and collaborate with researchers to develop spatial activities for the classroom (Ping et al., 2011).

The present study suggests that reducing teachers’ spatial anxiety has the potential to improve children’s spatial skill, which may have the important benefit of improving children’s interest and achievement in mathematics as well as STEM-related fields more broadly.

Citation for this Article

  • ♦ Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Beilock, S. L., & Levine, S. C. (in press). Teachers’ spatial anxiety relates to 1st- and 2nd-graders’ spatial learning. Mind, Brain, and Education.


  • ♦ Alexander, L., & Martray, C. (1989). The development of an abbreviated version of the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 22(3), 143-150.
  • ♦Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(5), 1860-1863. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910967107
  • ♦ Krakowski, M., Ratliff, K. R., Gomez, L. M., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Spatial intelligence and the research-practice challenge. In K. Gomez, L. Lyons & J. Radinsky (Eds.), Learning in the Disciplines: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS), Vol. 1, (pp. 556-563). Chicago, IL: International Society of the Learning Sciences.
  • ♦ Lawton, C. A. (1994). Gender differences in way-finding strategies: Relationship to spatial ability and spatial anxiety. Sex Roles, 30(11).
  • ♦ Ping, R. M., Bradley, C., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Beilock, S. L., & Levine, S. C. (2011). Alleviating anxiety about spatial ability in elementary school teachers. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, MA.
  • ♦ Thurstone, T. G. (1974). PMA Readiness Level. Chicago, IL: Science Research Associates.
  • ♦ Weschler, D. (1991). Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children–Third Edition. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
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