A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context and realism matter.
The research is published in a journal npj Science of learning.
“The context in which we learn things can help us remember them better,” said Jesse Rissman, corresponding author of the paper and associate professor of psychology at UCLA.
“We wanted to know if learning foreign languages in a virtual reality environment can improve memorization, especially when there is a possibility that the two sets of words will interfere with each other.”
The researchers asked 48 English-speaking participants to try to learn 80 words in two phonetically similar African languages, Swahili and Chiny, while navigating a virtual reality setting.
Wearing virtual reality headsets, participants explored one of two environments—a fantasy fairytale realm or a sci-fi landscape—where they could click to learn the Swahili or Chinjani names of objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages in the same VR environment; others learned one language in each setting.
Participants walked through the virtual worlds four times over two days, speaking the translations aloud each time. A week later, the researchers followed up with a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.
The results were astounding: 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.
The study is particularly timely because 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 fairly bland context for learning,” Rissman said. “As VR technology becomes more ubiquitous and accessible, remote learners can be instantly teleported into unique and richly-featured contexts for each classroom.”
The experiment was designed by Rissman and Joey Ka-Yee Essoe, the study’s first author, who was a doctoral student at UCLA at the time.
Rissman said a key predictor of subjects’ ability to retain what they learned was how immersed they felt in the VR world. The less the participant felt like a subject in a psychological experiment – and the more “at one” they felt with their avatar – the more virtual contexts were able to positively influence their learning.
“The more a person’s brain was able to reconstruct the unique pattern of activity associated with the learning context, the better they were able to recall the foreign words they learned there,” Rissman said.
Psychologists have long understood that people tend to remember 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 associated with contextual cues, people may have trouble recalling it later when those cues are absent.
For example, students can learn Spanish in the same classroom where other subjects are taught. When this happens, their Spanish vocabulary can be associated with the same contextual cues that are associated with other material they have been learning, such as the Pythagorean Theorem or a Shakespeare play. Not only does a similar context make it easier to mix up or forget what they’ve learned, but it can also make it harder to remember any information outside of a classroom setting.
“The key takeaway is that if you learn the same thing in the same environment, you learn it really quickly,” said Essoe, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “But even if you’re a fast learner, you can have problems with recall. What we’ve been able to use in this research is taking advantage of both rapid learning and improved recall in a new environment.”
To understand the brain mechanisms that support context-dependent learning, the researchers recruited a separate group of participants and scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As subjects tried to recall foreign words in the scanner, their brain activity indicated that they were thinking about the context in which they learned each word.
This finding suggests that virtual reality can improve learning if it is designed convincingly and if different languages or school subjects are taught in highly differentiated environments.
Rissman said that although the study only evaluated how people learned a foreign language, the results suggest that VR could be useful for teaching other subjects as well. Similar approaches could also be used for mental and behavioral health therapies to help patients follow doctors’ instructions after medical visits: Patients could better remember such instructions if they are in their own home and chatting online with their doctors, for example.
“Variable contexts can embed information in multiple environmental cues,” Essoe said.
Joey Ka-Yee Essoe et al., Enhancing Learning and Retention Using Characteristic Virtual Reality Environments and Mental Context Restoration, npj Science of learning (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41539-022-00147-6
Provided by University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: When using virtual reality as a teaching tool, context and the ‘real feel’ of matter (2022, December 15) Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-virtual-reality-tool-context – real.html
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