Separate but correlated: The latent structure of space and mathematics across development

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Mix, K.S., Levine, S.C., Cheng, Y-L, Young, C., Hambrick, D.Z., Ping. R., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2016). The latent structure of spatial skills and mathematics across development:  Highly correlated but separate domains. JEP General, 145(9), 1206-1227. doi: 10.1037/xge0000182


The relations among various spatial and mathematics skills were assessed in a cross-sectional study of 854 children from kindergarten, third, and sixth grades (i.e., 5 to 13 years of age). Children completed a battery of spatial mathematics tests and their scores were submitted to exploratory factor analyses both within and across domains. In the within domain analyses, all of the measures formed single factors at each age, suggesting consistent, unitary structures across this age range. Yet, as in previous work, the 2 domains were highly correlated, both in terms of overall composite score and pairwise comparisons of individual tasks. When both spatial and mathematics scores were submitted to the same factor analysis, the 2 domain specific factors again emerged, but there also were significant cross-domain factor loadings that varied with age. Multivariate regressions replicated the factor analysis and further revealed that mental rotation was the best predictor of mathematical performance in kindergarten, and visual-spatial working memory was the best predictor of mathematical performance in sixth grade. The mathematical tasks that predicted the most variance in spatial skill were place value (K, 3rd, 6th), word problems (3rd, 6th), calculation (K), fraction concepts (3rd), and algebra (6th). Thus, although spatial skill and mathematics each have strong internal structures, they also share significant overlap, and have particularly strong cross-domain relations for certain tasks.