Sixty years of research have not added up to a concordant evaluation of the influence of spatial and manual abilities on dental skill acquisition. We used Ackerman's theory of ability determinants of skill acquisition to explain the influence of spatial visualization and manual dexterity on the task performance of dental students in two consecutive preclinical technique courses. We measured spatial and manual abilities of applicants to Hamburg Dental School by means of a multiple choice test on Technical Aptitude and a wire-bending test, respectively. Preclinical dental technique tasks were categorized as consistent-simple and inconsistent-complex based on their contents. For analysis, we used robust regression to circumvent typical limitations in dental studies like small sample size and non-normal residual distributions. We found that manual, but not spatial ability exhibited a moderate influence on the performance in consistent-simple tasks during dental skill acquisition in preclinical dentistry. Both abilities revealed a moderate relation with the performance in inconsistent-complex tasks. These findings support the hypotheses which we had postulated on the basis of Ackerman's work. Therefore, spatial as well as manual ability are required for the acquisition of dental skills in preclinical technique courses. These results support the view that both abilities should be addressed in dental admission procedures in addition to cognitive measures.
Keywords: Dental student admission; GPA; Manual ability; Skill acquisition in preclinical dental technique courses; Spatial ability; Wire-bending test.