Past studies have found evidence of gender differences in route-learning strategies, indicating that men rely on configurational strategies (e.g., cardinal directions) and women rely on topographic strategies (e.g., landmarks). Whether and how these gender differences in route-learning strategies extend to virtual environments is not fully known. In this dissertation, I investigated gender differences in learning virtual routes from two frames of reference- egocentric and allocentric. One hundred and twenty participants volunteered for the two experiments. After completing two tests of spatial abilities, the participants viewed four separate virtual routes and their eye movements were recorded. Afterwards, they provided written route directions. In the egocentric viewpoint experiment, I found no support for the hypotheses predicting that men and women would differ in configurational and topographic route-learning strategies (visual and written). There were significant gender differences in configurational strategies when I analyzed a subset of compass users, suggesting that there is a more complex relationship between gender and virtual route-learning strategies than previously assumed. In part, visual scanning of route elements was significantly correlated with written directions. The predicted gender differences in spatial abilities (object location memory and mental rotation) were significant, but spatial abilities only partially correlated with written directions and eye fixations. Unexpectedly, the results yielded a significant negative correlation between women’s scores on the object location memory and written references to landmarks. In the allocentric viewpoint experiment, gender differences in route-learning strategies were significant or trended towards significance. Furthermore, visual scanning of the virtual route was significantly correlated with providing written directions. As in the egocentric viewpoint experiment, gender differences in spatial abilities were significant, but these abilities rarely correlated with route-learning strategies. Generally, the experimental results indicate that gender differences in virtual route-learning strategies are significant only under specific frames of reference. As well, allocating eye fixations on topographic and configurational elements of the environment correlates with making written references to those elements, regardless of viewpoint. Lastly, the use of a specific virtual route-learning strategy is not extensively associated with mental rotation and object location memory abilities, contradicting past assumptions about this relationship.
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Thesis advisor: Antle, Alissa
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