A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context, and realism.
The research is published in the journal npj Science of Learning.
“The context in which we learn things helps us remember them better,” said Jesse Riesman, a UCLA psychology associate professor and corresponding author of the paper.
“We want to know if learning foreign languages in virtual reality environments can improve recall, especially when two sets of words are likely to interact 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 science fiction landscape—where they could learn Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages in the same VR environment; Others learned a language in each environment.
Participants navigated through the virtual worlds four times over the course of two days, saying the translations aloud each time. After a week, the researchers administered a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.
The results were impressive: Subjects who learned each language in its own unique context, mixed with a few words, were able to remember 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 words between the two languages and retained only 76% of the words.
The study is especially timely during the COVID-19 pandemic as many K-12 schools, colleges and universities have moved to develop online learning platforms.
“Apps like Zoom provide a completely gentle context for learning,” Riesman said. “As VR technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, remote learners can be instantly teleported into unique and rich contexts for each class.”
Riesman, then a UCLA doctoral student, and Joey Ka-Yee Esso, the study’s first author, designed the experiment.
Riesman said a key predictor of subjects’ ability to retain what they learned was how immersed they were in the VR world. The less a participant in a psychological experiment felt like a subject—the more they felt “at one” with the avatar—virtual contexts were able to positively influence their learning.
“The more a person’s brain is able to recreate the unique activity pattern associated with the learning context, the more likely they are to remember the foreign words learned there,” Riesman said.
Psychologists have long known that people recall things more easily if they can remember something about the context around which they learned, called the “context crutch” phenomenon. But when information is tied to contextual cues, people may have trouble recalling it later in the absence of those cues.
For example, students may study Spanish in the same type of classroom as other subjects. When that happens, they can connect their Spanish vocabulary to the same contextual cues that are connected to other material they’ve been taught, like the Pythagorean theorem or a Shakespearean play. A similar context will not only make it easier for them to mix up or forget what they have learned, but it will also make it difficult to remember any information outside of a classroom setting.
“An important takeaway is that if you learn the same thing from the same environment, you learn it much faster,” said Esso, now a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “Even if you learn quickly, you may have trouble with recall. What we were able to take advantage of in this research is that it takes advantage of learning faster and improving recall in a new environment.”
To understand the brain mechanisms that support contextual learning, the researchers recruited a specific group of participants and scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. When 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.
That finding suggests that virtual reality can improve learning if it’s built convincingly and teaches different languages or scholastic subjects in very distinct environments.
Although the study only assessed how people learned a foreign language, Riesman said the results suggest that VR could be useful for teaching other subjects as well. Similar approaches could be used for mental and behavioral health treatments and to help patients follow doctors’ instructions after medical visits: patients may be better able to remember such instructions if they chat online with their doctors in their own homes. Example.
“Variable contexts can provide information on more environmental cues,” Esso said.
Joey Ka-Yee Essoe et al, Enhancing learning and retention using discrete virtual reality environments and mental context restoration, npj Science of Learning (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41539-022-00147-6
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reference: Context and what ‘feels real’ when using virtual reality as a teaching tool (2022, December 15) Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-virtual-reality-tool-context- . real.html
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