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Abstract

Sex-related differences on Piagetian horizontality (water level) and verticality (plumb line) tasks were examined in 64 college students. It was hypothesized that females' difficulties on these Euclidean spatial problems are due not to differences in underlying spatial competence, but rather to differences in knowledge of task specific information about the physical properties of water levels and plumb lines. This was tested by presenting subjects with the standard water level and plumb line problems and also modified problems not requiring knowledge of physical principles (i.e., drawing “straight up and down” or “straight across” lines inside tipped rectangles). While males were expected to outperform females on the standard tasks, no sex differences were expected on the modified tasks. Results of an ANOVA on scores for horizontality and verticality each showed main effects for sex and task version but failed to reveal the hypothesized interaction. However, performance on the Euclidean spatial tasks was also considered in terms of overall success versus failure. While males were more successful than females in the standard format, males and females were equally successful in the modified, nonphysical, format. Hence, college aged males and females generally do not differ in spatial competence although they may be differentially influenced by task content. Findings are discussed in terms of their implications for theory and practice. It is emphasized that science educators must be especially aware of such task influences for females so that performance deficits are not mistaken for competence deficits.