Unit 1: Visual-Spatial Processing

ETAP 623 Fall 2019 (Zhang) | Amber Ho | Supporting Visual-Spatial Processing Needs in a Mathematics Classroom

Visual-spatial processing needs can cause a lot of frustration in student learning


  • The participant will have the desire to learn more about visual-spatial processing needs (pre-requisite)
  • The participant will define visual processing and visual-spatial processing deficits
  • The participant will list examples of visual-spatial processing needs
  • The participant will create goals for the mini-course

What is Visual Processing?


Visual processing is how a person's brain interprets what is seen. It is the process of identifying objects and deriving meaning and understanding from visual cues. It is also one's ability to visual patterns and visual stimuli. Scientifically, a person's brain converts light energy entering through the cornea and pupil into meaningful images. Difficulties with visual processing can vary based on which part of the brain struggles to insert meaning to visual cues. It is important to note that visual processing deficits do not imply visual impairment. To be specific, visual processing is not how well something is seen, but how well the brain processes visual information.

Functions of the brain

How it relates to the classroom...

When a person has a deficit in their visual processing skills, this can greatly affect their learning or understanding of given information. In particular, visual processing deficits can inhibit the development of reading comprehension, as individuals lacking these skills tend to struggle to automatically decipher words and letters.

There are multiple facets of visual processing. Individuals can struggle with multiple components of visual processing, or in one specific domain. Listed below are the general areas of visual perceptual abilities:

  • Visual discrimination
  • Spatial relationship
  • Visual memory
  • Figure-ground
  • Visual closure

At this time, please watch the video below to learn more about visual processing:

In this course we will primarily be focusing on visual-spatial processing, however for further information regarding the other domains of visual processing, use the following references below:

What is Visual-Spatial Processing?


Students who have visual-spatial deficits may find it difficult to recognize the relationship between these shapes (how they are being manipulated or rotated)

Visual-spatial processing is a domain of visual processing deficits that pertains to the ability to generate, perceive, analyze, synthesize, manipulate, transform, and think about visual patterns and stimuli. It also includes the ability to determine where objects are in space relative to oneself. Not only does visual-spatial processing deficits include tangible manipulatives or objects but also pertains to verbal explanations, specifically one's ability to imagine objects' relationships to one another from an oral narrative.

Most tasks that involve visual-spatial processing skills also require additional processing skills. As this course progresses, some references to certain visual-spatial deficits and strategies to accommodate and support students may fall under other categories of visual processing disorders.

How it relates to the classroom...

Individuals with visual-spatial processing deficits struggle organizing visual information into meaningful patterns and understanding how these patterns might change if the object is manipulated, such as turned or shifted. Particularly in a mathematics classroom, regardless of the level of education, understanding and manipulating patterns is a key skill needed by every student. Without visual-spatial skills, tasks such as estimation of visual lengths, explanations of observable patterns, comprehending diagrams and charts, and so many other actions and activities may prove to be very challenging.

Students with visual-spatial processing deficits may particularly struggle with the following tasks:

  • Basic Numeric Arithmetic
    • Completing a computation such as 5-2+3 may be difficult, as the placement of numbers in the arithmetic may be mentally switched in the student's mind to which they may compute 3-2+5 instead.
  • Vertical Computations for Larger Numbers
  • Performing Transformations on Geometric Shapes
    • Higher levels of mathematics require students to be able to draw and predict manipulations of shapes in space.
  • Gauge Distances and Lengths
    • This may affect a student's ability to properly estimate the length of a given figure or segment, and overall affect their ability to analyze a given figure.
  • Read, Understand, and Replicate Charts and Diagrams

Below is an example of an elementary student who demonstrates signs of visual-spatial processing needs as she attempts to manipulate shapes to replicate the figures designed by the administrator:


Watch the following video for a summary of visual processing as needed before the final section of this unit.

As you are watching the video, evaluate your confidence in answering the following questions:

  1. What is visual-processing?
  2. What is visual-spatial processing?
  3. How does visual-processing deficits affect student learning?


In the Discussion, briefly respond to the following prompts:

  1. What was your prior understanding of visual-processing needs of students? How has your understanding changed since completing Unit 1?
  2. What do you hope to learn throughout this course regarding how to support students with visual-spatial processing deficits?
  3. What lasting questions do you have about the content of this unit?

What Comes Next...

Now that we have defined visual-processing and visual-spatial processing deficits, we are going to look further into how these needs appear in mathematics classrooms.

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Next Unit: Unit 2: Visual-Spatial Cognitive Needs