Study probes effect of virtual reality on learning

The first study to look at the impacts of VR on learning.


In a new study by Cornell University, scientists explored whether the compelling, immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) provides a better learning outcome than conventional hands-on activities. The study provides better intellect how the novelty of technology affects how people use it.

Natasha Holmes, the Ann S. Bowers Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, in physics said, “We’ve seen a lot of technology fads in education. And while technology can be very powerful in the classroom, as a discipline-based education researcher, it’s my job to do the controlled studies with real students to understand how, when and why these tools impact students.”

“It’s important to understand how the novelty of the technology affects how people use it. Can the enthusiasm people feel for VR be turned into learning gains?”

For the study, scientists create a simulation called ‘Learning Moon Phases in Virtual Reality’. Scientists assigned Cornell students to one of three strategies: hands-on, computer simulation or VR. The directions and test questions were as firmly coordinated to one another as possible, with the exercises demonstrated on normal cosmology astronomy exercises.

Doctoral candidate Jack Madden removes VR goggles.
Doctoral candidate Jack Madden removes VR goggles.

The traditional hands-on activity had three components– a light to mimic the sun, a short stay with a ball on top to speak to the moon and the understudy filling in as the Earth holding the stick. Members avoided the ball as much as possible and spun around to make a brightening design that imitates the moon’s stages.

The VR and desktop activities – structured by a group of alumni and college understudies in correspondence, computer science and astronomy– included exact star maps and relative movements of the divine bodies.

In the personal computer simulation, members could control their survey position and planar viewpoint just as the movement of time, which was synchronized with the three bodies’ orbits and rotation.

The VR option was similar to the computer simulation, allowing participants to move forward and backward in time, change the moon’s orbit and choose different viewing positions.

Some of the questions required rote memorization and some required building mental models and making predictions, so the researchers could look at different kinds of learning. But despite the radical differences between the three teaching methods, pre- and post-assessments revealed that students learned equally well with all three.

Lead author Jack Madden, a doctoral candidate in the field of astronomy said, “The similarity in learning outcome is particularly interesting, given that the VR participants had to learn how to use new technology at the same time they were learning the moon phases. What would the outcome have been if they’d already been familiar with using VR to learn?”

“But while learning outcomes might have been similar, participants’ attitudes toward the methods were not. After completing their activity, each participant was shown the other two methods. The VR activity was preferred by 78 percent of the participants; one person described it as ‘the coolest thing I’ve ever seen’.”

Swati Pandita, graduate student said, “The next iteration will study the effects of avatar embodiment on learning outcomes. Several participants mentioned feeling nervous because they didn’t have a body and remarked, ‘There’s no spacesuit so how can I breathe?’ The lack of a virtual body may have affected their willingness to explore the environment freely. We want to see if people will feel more encouraged to move around and engage more with the environment if they have an avatar.”

The paper, “Virtual Reality as a Teaching Tool for Moon Phases and Beyond,” was presented at the 2018 Physics Education Research Conference and published in the peer-reviewed 2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.