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The digital age has brought fears that humans may be ‘dumbing down’, interacting less and harming their attention span. But technological advancements also come with huge opportunities to improve how we learn. One such opportunity comes in the form of Virtual Reality. Here we look at the science behind Virtual Reality learning, and explore whether it could be more effective than traditional classroom learning.

Virtual Reality learning and fact retention

Remembering facts is central to how we learn. As explained beautifully in Paste Magazine, new facts need to be ‘matched up’ with our existing knowledge and beliefs in order to be fully understood. We also have to test out this new knowledge through action and repetition. Such repetition actually changes the physical structure of our brains, with physical connections growing stronger each time an action is carried out.

This is where more traditional teaching methods may fall down. In the absence of prior understanding or practical application of what we have learnt, facts remain abstract. This makes them more difficult to store.

Here’s where Virtual Reality learning can help. Simulating a situation where knowledge can be applied adds context to the information. It also allows the participant to practise this new knowledge in a realistic setting, helping them to develop the neural connections which are vital to memory recall.

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Virtual Reality learning aids comprehension

Around half of the brain is involved in visual processing. That’s why news stories have pictures, songs have music videos and textbooks have diagrams. And if we can actually interact with those visuals, we move even further away from the abstract and towards the concrete – a vital step in comprehending new ideas.

For example, it’s one thing for a sports coach to explain a certain tactic to a rookie player, but without rounding up a whole team of people and de-camping to a playing field, the information remains theoretical. But give the trainee a VR headset, and instantly they are able to test out these ideas in practice.

For a biologist, a drawing of a cell will help them to understand what they’ve been told about its structure. But Virtual Reality learning techniques could allow them to view the cell in 3D, enlarging it at will, rotating it or watching it react to a chosen stimulus.

Studies show that when we read, we tend to look at the big picture as opposed to the finer details. When presented with too much text on a page, we’re likely to skim read, looking out for the things that interest us. So if there is a lot of information to convey in a short space of time, words fall short. Videos may help, but even then we lose out on the benefits gained from interaction. Once again, Virtual Reality learning could solve this problem. As one study points out: “When we can’t have real experiences, Virtual Reality is irreplaceable”.

Virtual Reality learning elicits an emotional response

Emotions help us to form memories. Looking back at your past, what do you remember most vividly? Is it a string of mundane, everyday tasks? Or is it the events that made you happy, sad, exhilarated and so on? It makes sense that we learn from experiences that elicit strong emotions – it helps us to repeat the things that make us feel gratified and avoid the things that make us feel unsafe.

We all know Virtual Reality is not strictly real. But it stimulates very real emotional reactions. You may have seen people wearing VR headsets, screaming as if they’re on a real rollercoaster or jumping at the sight of a simulated ghost. This emotional response makes Virtual Reality highly effective in helping us store information. It also allows the user to test their reactions while facing real-world stresses and pressures.

Evidence of the benefits of Virtual Reality learning

A recent study by the University of Saskatchewan showed remarkable results on the efficacy of Virtual Reality as a learning tool. The university is using VR as a teaching aid in its College of Medicine. They created a VR brain module, which was developed using MRI scans of the tutor’s own brain. The topic of neuroscience is so complex that students can easily become overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to learn, leading to apathy and poor recall.

The VR lesson only lasted eight minutes – far less time than the standard lesson period. However, students showed improvements in their accuracy by 20%. One student commented: “A week later it seemed like I was able to go back into my mind and bring back the experience. During the exam I was able to think back to the neuroscience module.”

Delighted with the results, Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of the university’s surgery department, said: “The brain is a 3D structure and intricate areas have specific relationships with each other. It’s difficult to grasp. [Virtual Reality is] making learners more prepared to navigate the complexities of the human brain in clinical practice”.

Virtual Reality learning providers

If you’re interested in providing Virtual Reality training to your students or employees, there are specialist VR training agencies who can help you put together a course. Here at Absorb Reality, we can provide bespoke Virtual Reality training courses to businesses and organisations of all sizes. Whatever your needs or budget, get in touch and we’ll be happy to assist you.