Benefits of Sketching and Spatial Visualization Training

Sketching is widely used in many areas including math, physics, medicine, and vocational training. The act of sketching has been shown to improve the cognitive ability to think spatially. Sketching is also important for creativity, teamwork, and communication. However, sketching is rarely taught.

Our apps teach students how to sketch without the need for artistic ability and provide real-time personalized feedback. Our first sketching application is in spatial visualization training which has been shown to increase GPAs and graduation rates in engineering and other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) areas.

Research by Others:

  • Since 1993, research in spatial visualization tracked over 7,000 students and showed that spatial visualization training with freehand sketching can increase GPAs and graduation rates in STEM [1]. Based upon this research, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the ENGAGE Engineering initiative with an objective of promoting spatial visualization training.

  • Spatial visualization training has been shown to be especially effective in the first two college years when students are most at risk for leaving engineering. The percent increase in student performance due to spatial visualization training is described at Engage Engineering.

  • Research has shown that spatial visualization skills can be learned—and that sketching is a critical part of the learning process. Students who improve their spatial skills have a higher retention rate in engineering than those with weak spatial visualization skills who do not take a spatial visualization training class [1,2].

  • Benefits of spatial visualization training have been shown to be especially effective for women and other underrepresented minorities in math and science [3].

  • Sketching is a key skill for creativity, communication, and teamwork [4].

Benefits of the Spatial Vis™ App

We replaced sketching on paper with sketching on a touchscreen to provide the benefits of automatic grading, personalized feedback, and data analytics for the teacher. The app provides hints for students when they are stuck and gamification to encourage student persistence. The app can be used in a classroom setting or assigned as homework for students to work independently. Students can work on Apple or Android smartphones, tablets, or advanced Chromebooks.

The Spatial Vis™ Engineering App is well suited for Introduction to Engineering, Design, and Computer Aided Design (CAD) courses. Learning spatial visualization is especially helpful in gaining proficiency in 3D CAD packages.

Classroom Trials With Spatial Vis™:

We have conducted trials with the Spatial Vis™ app since 2013 in a number of settings as described below. To measure the effectiveness of our app, we administer pre- and post-assessments using the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R), which is the same test used by the majority of studies on spatial visualization training effectiveness.

341% Increase Relative to Control Class


A Fall 2017 trial was conducted at the University of San Diego in which the Spatial Vis™ app was assigned as homework for an experimental section (n=23), while a second section (n=22) was used as a control. The analysis focused on students who entered the course with limited spatial visualization ability as identified by a score of ≤70% on a pre-test (PSVT:R). Among these low-performing students, those who used the app showed remarkable progress – 8 of 13 (62%) raised their test scores above 70% compared to just 2 of 14 (14%) in the control group. While this study needs to be duplicated with a larger number of students, this represents a 341% increase in the number of students who moved out of an “at risk” category due to low spatial visualization skills [5].



Smartphone Screens are Large Enough!

Initial classroom trials were conducted on iPad tablets, but in 2018 the app was ported to iPhone and Android smartphones. Students quickly adapted to the smaller screen size using pan and zoom, and greatly appreciated the flexibility of being able to work on the app any time or place. Over 350 students at UC San Diego and San Diego State University used the Spatial Vis™ app in 2018 on iPhone and Android phones. In a survey, 95% of the students would recommend the app to their peers. Many students reported using Spatial Vis™ while waiting in line for food, while on the bus, or while waiting for class to start. 


Persistence Can Be Quantified and Increased

Persistence is a key attribute that correlates to student success but increasing persistence can be difficult. Most online education uses multiple-choice questions, which can be attempted only once. However, a benefit of sketching assignments is that they can be done again and again until a student gets it right. The Spatial Vis™ app is gamified by providing star rewards to motivate students to keep trying to solve a problem on their own before asking for a hint. In a research study we quantified student persistence by the number of times a student retried an assignment before asking for a hint and showed that this correlated to increased spatial visualization gains (best paper award [6]). Following this study, we showed that our gamification increased persistence and more than doubled the percentage of students with significant learning gains [7, 8, 9].



  1. Sorby, S. A. (2009). Educational research in developing 3-D spatial skills for engineering students. International Journal of Science Education, 31(3).

  2. Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: a meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological bulletin139(2), 352.

  3. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

  4. Do, E. Y. L., & Gross, M. D. (1996, June). Drawing as a means to design reasoning. In AI and Design.

  5. Hoople, G., Cowan, E., Van Den Einde, L., Tara, J., & Delson, N. (2018). "Teaching Spatial Visualization: A Controlled Trial of a Touchscreen App Implemented as Homework", 2018 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE). 

  6. Delson, N., & Van Den Einde, L. (2015) "Tracking Student Engagement with a Touchscreen App for Spatial Visualization Training and Freehand Sketching".  2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 2015, June. Internet. (Chair’s Award for Outstanding Technical Paper, Engineering Design Graphics Division)

  7. Cowan, E., Delson, N., Mihelich, R., & Van Den Einde, L. (2017). “Improvement in Freehand Sketching Application for Spatial Visualization Training”, Conference on Pen and Touch Technology in Education.

  8. Van Den Einde, L., Delson, N., Cowan, E., & Yang, D. (2017). Increasing Student Persistence in a Sketching App for Spatial Visualization Training.  10th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, Seville, Spain. 16-18 November, 2017. 

  9. Delson, N., & Van Den Einde, L.  (2018) "Sketching, Assessment, and Persistence in Spatial Visualization Training On a Touchscreen." 2018 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Salt Lake City, Nevada, 2018, June. Internet.