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Showcase March 2011: Assessing Mental Folding in Children

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Justin Harris, Department of Psychology, Temple University
Nora Newcombe (PI), Department of Psychology, Temple University
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Department of Psychology, Temple University

Strong spatial skills are an important component for success in everyday life and for many classes and careers (National Research Council [NRC], 2006). This is particularly true in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines (Battista, 1990; Schwartz & Black, 1996; Carter, LaRussa, & Bodner, 1987; Pribyl & Bodner, 1987; Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009, Wu & Sha, 2004). Determining how to best provide early support for these skills is therefore a pressing research question. However, assessing potential educational programs requires valid assessments of the target skills, as does evaluating the progress of individual children as they develop. Unfortunately, many skills that can be easily assessed in adults lack an age appropriate analog for children.

Mental folding represents one such gap in the spatial intelligence literature. Mental folding has long been considered an important component of spatial skills (Linn & Petersen, 1985; McGee, 1979, NRC, 2006). As the name suggests, mental folding involves being able to imagine how an object will look after it has been folded in a specific way. Mental folding is of particular interest as it was one of the skills found to be predictive of entry into STEM disciplines (Wai, Lubinksi, and Benbow, 2009).

We have developed a new, age-appropriate test of mental folding aimed at a population of 5- to 7-year-olds, the Mental Folding Test – Precise level 1 (MFT-P1). The MFT-P1 is designed to be the simplest mental folding test that requires precision in the folds being imagined. Unlike adult tests, no overlapping folds are included and unfolding is not explicitly required, though children may use it as a strategy to identify the correct answer. The test consists of 12 test items and 2 practice items.

The test begins with a detailed script explaining important features of the test and the concept of mental folding through two practice items. For each practice item children are presented with a physical piece of paper with colors and markings to match the prompt (see Figure 1). The fact that the prompt matches the physical piece of paper is reiterated multiple times. For the first practice item, children fold the physical piece of paper and then the task is explained. Before the child is prompted to select an answer the experimenter explains why each of the distracter items is incorrect. The distracters for the practice items do not follow the same pattern as those in the rest of the test. Rather, the distracters for these items are meant to help the child understand the task (see Figure 1). The children are then prompted to gesture making the fold on the practice item and then to select an answer. For the second practice item, children are instructed to gesture folding and select an answer before folding the physical piece of paper. The order is reversed to highlight that the test should be solved by mentally folding the prompt before looking at the answers, but that the answer may be checked by mentally folding the prompt again. The location of the correct answer for the first practice item is on the far left, while the correct answer for the second practice item is on the near right. This is to prevent the child from extracting any rule based on location of the answer choices.

Figure 1. Picture 1.
Figure 1. Picture 2.

Figure 1. Experimenter view of Practice item 1 (top)
Practice item 1 with explanations (bottom).

The 12 test items immediately follow the practice items and are not accompanied by a physical piece of paper. Distracter items were created to capture errors based on a lack of precision in folding and are analogous physically making such errors (see Figure 2). These distracter items were designed in this manner so that errors could be treated as meaningful responses. By including a consistent set of distracters in this test it is possible to treat a bias to one of the errors as meaningful information about an individual’s mental folding.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Example test item.

Ninety-two children with a mean age of 70.69 months (5 years and 11 months, 46 females) have participated thus far. The test has an acceptable level of internal reliability (α = .81, calculated using tetrachoric inter-item correlations to correct for dichotomous scoring). A moderate to strong, positive correlation with Levine's Mental Transformation Task (Levine et al., 1999, r = .38, p < .001) suggests that the MFT-P1 is measuring spatial intelligence. Linn and Petersen’s (1985) meta-analyses reported that mental folding should not show gender differences and none were detected in the MFT-P1, F(1,88) = .68, n.s). The MFT-P1 scores significantly improved across the target age (r = .56, p < .001). There is also a significant reduction with age in number of children who followed a guessing strategy (r = .33, p < .01) from 54% for 5-year-olds to 8% for 7-year-olds, indicating that this test is appropriate for the intended age-range.

Two projects are currently underway in an effort to use this task to further understand early spatial development. Four-year-olds were initially excluded due to difficulties following instructions on how to fold paper. An examination of the relationship between the development of physical folding precision and mental folding precision is therefore currently underway. Physical folds are being assessed using bidimensional regression (Friedman & Kohler, 2003). This technique allows the coordinates defining the fold children make to be regressed onto the coordinates of the actual fold that should be made. This technique provides multiple statistics on different distortions made that are analogous to the ways in which precision can be lacking. We hypothesize that problems with physical folding will be related to problems mentally folding.

The second study will examine the developmental trajectory of mental folding ability using an accelerated longitudinal design. Children will be followed at intervals of 6 months so that their development can be assessed. Future studies should determine if scores on the MFT-P1 could predict success in early science and math courses, as well as later spatial skills.

The MFT-P1 appears to be a reliable and valid test of mental folding for children in the 5- to 7-year-old age range. This test can therefore fill an important gap in early spatial skills assessment. The development of this test, and others like it, is an important step in laying the foundation for providing the necessary support of spatial skills in young children. Proper evaluation is the cornerstone to the development of sound educational initiatives and in advancing the basic science of understanding how these skills develop. Future work can now address both of these goals with respect to mental folding.


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