When using virtual reality as a teaching tool, context and ‘feeling real’ matter

A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context and realism matter.

The research is published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

“The context in which we learn things can help us remember them better,” said Jesse Rissman, the paper’s corresponding author and UCLA associate professor of psychology. “We wanted to know if learning foreign languages ​​in virtual reality environments could improve recall, especially when there is the possibility for two sets of words to interfere with each other.”

Researchers asked 48 English-speaking participants to try to learn 80 words in two phonetically similar African languages, Swahili and Chinyanja, while navigating virtual reality settings.

Wearing VR headsets, participants explored one of two environments—a fantasy fairyland or a sci-fi landscape—where they could click to learn the Swahili or Chinese names for the objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages ​​in the same VR environment; others learned one language in each environment.

Participants navigated through the virtual worlds four times over two days, saying the translations out loud each time. One week later, the researchers followed up with a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.

The results were striking: Subjects who learned each language in its own unique context mixed up fewer words and were able to recall 92% of the words they learned. In contrast, participants who learned both sets of words in the same VR context were more likely to confuse terms between the two languages ​​and retained only 76% of the words.

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The study is particularly timely as so many K-12 schools, colleges and universities have moved to develop online learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Apps like Zoom provide a pretty fuzzy context for learning,” Rissman said. “As VR technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, remote learners could be instantly teleported into unique and richly presented contexts for each class.”

The experiment was designed by Rissman and Joey Ka-Yee Essoe, the first author of the study who was a UCLA doctoral student at the time.

Rissman said a key predictor of the subjects’ ability to retain what they learned was how immersed they felt in the VR world. The less a participant felt like a subject in a psychological experiment – and the more “at one” they felt with their avatar – the more the virtual contexts could positively influence their learning.

“The more a person’s brain was able to reconstruct the unique activity pattern associated with the learning context, the better they were able to recall the foreign words they learned there,” Rissman said.

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Psychologists have long understood that people tend to recall things more easily if they can remember something about the surrounding context in which they learned it – the so-called “contextual crutch” phenomenon. But when information is linked to contextual cues, people can have trouble recalling it later in the absence of those cues.

For example, students could learn Spanish in the same type of classroom where they learn other subjects. When this happens, their Spanish vocabulary can be linked to the same contextual cues that are linked to other material they have been taught, such as the Pythagorean theorem or a Shakespeare play. Not only does that similar context make it easy to mix up or forget what they’ve learned, but it can also make it difficult to remember any of the information outside of the classroom.

“A key takeaway is that if you’re learning the same thing in the same environment, you’re going to learn it really quickly,” said Essoe, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “But even though you’re a fast learner, you might have problems with recall. What we were able to leverage in this research is benefiting both rapid learning and improving recall in a new environment.”

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To understand the brain mechanisms that support context-dependent learning, the researchers recruited a separate group of participants and scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As the subjects tried to recall foreign words while in the scanner, their brain activity indicated that they were thinking about the context in which they learned each word.

This finding indicates that virtual reality can improve learning if it is convincingly produced and if different languages ​​or scholastic subjects are taught in very distinctive environments.

Rissman said that although the study only assessed how people learned a foreign language, the results indicate that VR could be useful for teaching other subjects as well. Similar approaches could also be used for mental and behavioral therapies and to help patients adhere to doctors’ instructions after medical visits: Patients could better remember such guidance if they are in their own homes while chatting online with their doctors, for example.

Essoe said: “Variable contexts can base information on more environmental cues.”


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