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Teaching Spatial Reasoning Using Game-Based Learning Can Boost Math Scores

Ramesh Balan & Matthew Haid

Spatial reasoning is part of our everyday lives. We use it when we’re following a diagram to put together a piece of furniture or remembering how to get back to the elevator after checking into a hotel room. But it’s an underrated skill. People are quick to say “I’m bad at math” or “I get lost easily,” when they’d never say the same about other foundational skills like reading. 

For students developing spatial reasoning, the ability to visualize and mentally manipulate objects, shapes, and locations, is critical. Strong spatial skills help students master more complex math problems and can lead to a greater interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. 

Historically education has not included specific lessons on spatial reasoning, but there are some schools making changes to remedy that. Garland Classical Academy is one. Educators there are dedicating time to spatial reasoning and doing it through game-based learning. 

Garland Classical Academy is a Title 1 school in Garland, Texas. Following the pandemic, the school wanted to improve learning recovery rates, particularly in math, and build spatial reasoning skills among students. They started with an engaging, AI-assisted game-based application called NumberSense by Knomadix. The changes helped introduce gamification and immediate feedback into math homework that fostered critical thinking. More importantly, the game required no additional effort by overwhelmed school staff. The game’s sophisticated AI provided immediate feedback that spurred growth in students’ conceptual understanding of math foundations and spatial reasoning. The result was a double-digit increase in student math performance as well as the school performing well above average on state math exams. 

One of the reasons Garland’s efforts were so effective was that they started the curriculum in early grades. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommends that spatial reasoning be a significant focus of math education from PreK to eighth grade. 

That early start is important for other reasons. Fostering strong spatial skills goes hand in hand with developing numerical skills. The combination often leads to improved math performance and sets up students for success in STEM coursework later on. Some research found that if all students in the U.S. received spatial skills training, twice as many students would have spatial skill levels comparable to a typical engineering student. 

Adding spatial skills to math education can help students visualize math problems that are new to them, create a mental number line where they can see basic addition and subtraction, visualize scientific processes, and interpret maps, graphs, and diagrams.

By taking a game-based learning approach, educators can reach students who have heard directly or indirectly that they’ll never be good at math. Girls, students of color, students from under-resourced communities, and students with disabilities often believe they are not good at math, even when there are no observable differences in their performance. 

Finding the right lessons and the right approaches is essential to breaking math stereotypes and supporting the success of all students. Spatial awareness is not innate, but rather requires intentional instruction to develop. Including lessons such as using diagrams in science, revising existing textbooks, and using tablets to sketch are all ways educators can improve spatial awareness in students. Educators can also fold lessons about spatial awareness into non-math subjects. Using a ruler to measure how tall a plant has grown or building models with blocks are great opportunities. Even computer games such as Tetris, Foldit, or Minecraft can reinforce spatial skills.

Educators at the Garland Classical Academy found that gamification with intelligent, bot-enabled feedback was particularly helpful. With NumberSense students could see a visual game board that showed their progress. Other visualizations within the game itself also helped students develop the skills to picture two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects and shapes as well as develop accurate mental number lines. School leaders also leaned heavily on materials with clearly stated objectives and that engaged multiple senses, including visual and spatial, to fully support students.

The final component was using the game’s engaging approach to maximize students’ home-based learning. At first, Garland educators assigned students at-home practice using NumberSense, requiring parent signatures confirming time spent. This process enabled reinforcement of spatial reasoning skills, accountability, and parent involvement.

As students continue to experience slow learning recovery in math, education needs to look for innovative ways to build strong foundational skills. Adding spatial reasoning to curriculum can be a path forward that supports student success and breaks down stereotypes. Plus as more students realize their own potential in math, they may be more encouraged to pursue STEM careers, helping to advance and redefine professional paths in those fields.

By Dr. Matthew Haid  and LaTricia Waters

Dr. Matthew Haid is the campus director at Garland Classical Academy. LaTricia Waters, a Dallas Texas native has been with Responsive Ed for 10 years, gaining experience in classroom teaching, special populations, and leadership. Waters received her Master in Education from Texas A&M Commerce and has recently transitioned to the position of Project Management for Ignite Community Schools. She believes that teaching is a passion that one has to develop and grow young minds. 

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