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Visual and Spatial Learning

We are studying visual and spatial thinking in science among middle school students. It has been known for some time, through research in psychology and in the history of science, that everyday thinking as well as scientific thinking occurs in various modes including the language-based, symbolic, visual and spatial. Although visual and spatial modes are prominent in science as also in children’s learning, they have been relatively neglected in our schools and also in science education research worldwide. At HBCSE we have currently two research studies in this area, one in human physiology, involving relatively more visual content, and another in elementary astronomy, in which spatial relationships predominate.

1. DNA Structure

It is well documented in research studies that learners face difficulties in understanding the structural-functional linkages in elementary genetics. An intriguing study by Bahar et al. (1999) suggested that students considered the structure and function of the DNA & RNA molecule as one of the "least difficult areas". Nevertheless, in a research study conducted at HBCSE with five beginning undergraduate students, we found that undergraduate biology students do have a problem in understanding the basic 3-D structure of DNA molecule.


Through clinical interview-cum-teaching sessions we first recapitulated students' background knowledge of basic biology and chemistry prerequisites. We then proceeded to a microgenetic study of their understanding of DNA structure, in which we found that initially, all the students interpreted their familiar textbook diagrams as 2-D structures, rather than 2-D representations of the 3-D structures. We then used multiple models to develop their understanding. Based on previous research we conjectured that gesture, analogy, and mental simulation involving changing the viewpoint of the observer, could be used to link together multiple external representations into an integrated internal representation, and thus brought about mental visualization of the 3-D structure. Through a microgenetic time-sequence analysis we identified episodes during which students showed 'positive' i.e. 2-D to 3-D transitions and 'Aha!' moments, and traced these learning episodes to use of gesture, in combination with mental simulation using the 'ladder analogy' with 'character viewpoint' imagery.



2. Elementary astronomy


It is well known that students and even adults have problems in understanding the heliocentric model and using it to reason about everyday phenomena. A major source of the difficulty might be in visuospatial reasoning: that operates on spatial properties of the model such as size, shape, position, motion etc., and calls upon cognitive abilities like mental rotation and perspective-taking - abilities that are often neglected in our school learning.

a. Phases of the moon

Previous research in the domain of astronomy education has identified several common misconceptions and has focused on students' incorrect mental models as the underlying structures responsible for these misconceptions. More recent studies of model based reasoning in science education have emphasised the process aspect of how models are used to reason. Consistent with this trend, in this study we examine how subjects set up, transform and reason with models that they establish on the basis of known facts as they seek to explain a familiar everyday phenomenon - the phases of the moon. An interview schedule was designed to elicit subjects' reasoning, and in the case where explanations were mistaken, to induce a change in explanation. Detailed interviews of eight subjects, with equal numbers from a group of students of a Master's programme in design, and a group of Master's degree holders in physics, were videotaped and analysed. We provide rich descriptions of the strategies used by the subjects, highlighting the difficulties that they encountered along the way. We focus on the interaction between physical and geometrical aspects, simplification and idealisation processes, interplay between facts, concepts and visualisation, and the use of external visualisations through gestures and diagrams. We suggest that visualisation is an important process in science education, and point to the importance of developing among students the ability to work with diagrams. [Shamin Padalkar, K. Subramaniam]

b. Earth-sun-moon system

In this study we aim to: a) assess students’ understanding of elementary astronomy by the end of primary and middle school, b) help Class 7 and 8 students work through problems that require them to explain daily phenomena involving the sun-earth-moon system and c) test their development in understanding after one year. We use results from current research in model-based visuospatial reasoning to develop a locally appropriate low-cost teaching methodology for elementary astronomy.

Our pedagogy is based on systematic use of three types of tools that have been found to be effective in developing spatial reasoning: concrete 3-d models and manipulative tasks, body gestures and schematic diagrams. In particular, we use specific body gestures to link models with diagrams; we conjecture that the role of gestures parallels that of thinking aloud before putting down an argument in writing.


Three teaching cycles were conducted, with contact sessions of two hours per day over 2 weeks each, in three classes in three different schools. One school serves a suburban slum area of Mumbai, another is a residential school for tribal students and the third school is located in a farming village. Altogether there are about 68 students in these classes who come from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For initial and final assessment of the students’ understanding we administered four questionnaires: on everyday observations, textbook information, cultural or indigenous information and conceptual understanding. The questionnaires employed text and diagrams. During the classroom interventions video data was collected on whole class interactions, group problem solving and individual interviews. Comparison was carried out between the gestures used in pedagogy and the spontaneous gestures used by students during problem solving.


Shamin Padalkar – Ph.D. Project on “Spatial Cognition and Visualization in Elementary Astronomy Education”


  1. Pedagogic Gestures
  2. Pedagogic material
    1. Tests and questionnaires
      1. Tests
        1. Test 1
        2. Test 2
        3. Test 3
        4. Test 4
        5. Test 5
      2. Pedagogic questionnaires (Original Marathi versions)
      3. Annotated translations of pedagogic questionnaires, or, problem situations used in guided collaborative problem solving
      4. Homeworks (Original Marathi versions)
      5. Spatial Tasks (Original Marathi versions)
    2. Articles
      1. Articles for teachers
        1. Article 1
        2. Article 2
        3. Article 3
      2. Articles for students
        1. The earth (Prithwi)
        2. Rotation of earth 

[Shamin Padalkar, Jayashree Ramadas]



3. Human body systems


Human physiology is a highly visual subject, yet it is taught in schools largely in the verbal mode. In our study with students of classes 6, 7 and 8 we have found that an ability to integrate text with diagrams characterises those students who have a good understanding of body systems. We have followed up with a sample of about 80 Class 8 students in five English medium schools in Mumbai. Our aim has been to describe students’ comprehension and expression, through text and diagrams, of the digestive and respiratory systems, in terms of structure, function and "visualisation" of the two systems.


Based on insights from literature in cognitive science we developed a coding system for students’ textual as well as diagrammatic responses. We found through this coding that we were able to identify three broad levels of understanding of the digestive system which further showed a high level consistency between scores on text and diagrams. However students had a preference as well as better facility in expressing themselves through text than through diagrams. Overall for both digestive and respiratory systems, understanding of structure was better than that of function. Common difficulties, identified through both free expression and comprehension-type questions, occurred with respect to the roles of the following: a) accessory organs namely the liver and pancreas, b) epiglottis, c) small intestine as a site of absorption, d) alveoli in gas exchange, e) capillaries in facilitating gas exchange and f) diaphragm in inhalation and exhalation. As expected, microscopic processes and those at a chemical level were found to be more difficult to understand compared with macroscopic processes.


An important aim of this research has been to characterise "visualisation" in the context of body systems. Following clues from some well-known studies of mental imagery we assigned visualisation scores based on students’ ability to mentally manipulate structure of the organs or the system and to predict what might be the effect on function. Students' performance on visualisation turned out better than their performance on diagrams. Students did not spontaneously generate visual mental images but when presented with a specific task followed by probing questions, they could be persuaded to do so. Further, they found it difficult to depict the generated image on paper, relying rather on words and gestures to demonstrate their understanding. Visualisation as defined here was closely predicated on prior knowledge of the domain. As for comprehension of diagrams, a key conceptual challenge lay in interpretation of cross-sections. Unfamiliarity with diagrammatic conventions such as arrows, keys and symbols also translated into difficulties in comprehension.


Pedagogical suggestions from our research include sensitising children to a broad range of visuals, even within the genre of line drawings employed in this study. This includes familiarity with the visual vocabulary used in production of varied types of diagrams, and practice in using these diagrams as a tool for thinking through a situation. Strong content knowledge is a prerequisite to successful mental manipulations. Another important requirement is moving flexibly between text and diagrams. Text in textbooks should refer to and make use of the spatial information contained in the diagrams, thereby encouraging students to switch from one to the other in meaningful sequence. [Sindhu Mathai, Jayashree Ramadas]


4. Visual and Verbal modes in learning Optics and Motion


 J. Ramadas: Use of Ray Diagrams in Optics, School Science, XX, 10-17, 1982.


J. Ramadas and R. Driver: Aspects of Secondary Students' Ideas about Light, Centre for Studies in Science and Maths Education, University of Leeds, 1989.


J. Ramadas and M. Shayer: Schematic Representations in Optics, In P. Black and A. Lucas (Eds.), Children's Informal Ideas: Towards Construction of Working Theories, Routledge, London, 1993.


J. Ramadas: Children Talk About Motion, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Bombay, December 1989.


J. Ramadas: Motion in children's Drawings, In I. Harel (Ed.), Constructionist Learning: A 5th Anniversary Collection of Papers, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990.



5. Selected Publications:

International Journal of Science Education Vol: 31 (3) Special Issue

Articles published in the International Journal of Science Education, Special Issue on "Visual and Spatial Modes in Science Learning" [2008] [copyright Taylor & Francis]; International Journal of Science Education is available at


S. Mathai and J. Ramadas: The visual and verbal as modes to express understanding of the human body, In D. Barker-Plummer, R. Cox and N. Swoboda (Eds.): Diagrammmatic Representation and Inference, Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, LNAI 4045 (pp. 173-175). Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2006. [Springer Link]


Padalkar, S. and Subramaniam, K. (2007) Reasoning processes underlying the explanation of the phases of the moon, Proceedings of Episteme-2, 121-125. [epiSTEME Link]


J. Ramadas: Visual-spatial Modes in Science Learning. In B. Choksi and C. Natarajan (Eds.) epiSTEME-2 Research Trends in Science, Technology and Mathematics Education (epiSTEME Reviews Volume 2), Mumbai: Macmillan India, 2008.


Padalkar, S. and Ramadas, J. (2008) Modeling the round earth through diagrams. Astronomy Education Review, 6 (2), 54-74.

[Portico Link]


Padalkar, S. and Ramadas, J. (2008) Indian students’ understanding of astronomy. In Electronic Proceedings of the Conference of Asian Science Education (CASE 2008), Kaohsiung, Taiwan, February 2008.


Mathai, S. & Ramadas, J. (2009): Questionnaires, coding schemes and selected results for "Visuals and visualisation of human body systems." International Journal of Science Education, Vol 31(3), Special Issue on "Visual and Spatial Modes in Science Learning". pp. 431-458.

[IJSE Link]


Padalkar, S. and Ramadas, J (2009). An indigenous approach to elementary astronomy - How cognitive research can help.

In Subramaniam, K., & Mazumdar, A. (Eds.), Proceedings of Conference epiSTEME-3, Mumbai, India,5-9 Jan 2009, 69-75.      [epiSTEME Link]


L. Kala and J. Ramadas (2001) History and Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Science and Science Education: Issues at the Interface, Indian Educational Review, 37(2), pp. 3-21.



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