Virtual reality (VR) is exciting and engaging for students, but for the most part, schools have struggled to find ways to incorporate it into the curriculum. Now, new research reveals one possible impetus for more classroom inclusion.

University of Maryland researchers conducted an in-depth analysis on whether people learn better through virtual and immersive environments versus more traditional platforms such as a two-dimensional desktop computer or handheld tablet.

The researchers found that people remember information better if it is presented to them in a virtual environment. The results of the study were recently published in the journal Virtual Reality.

The findings offer encouraging news for educators who want to explore how VR fits into learning. Although recent survey data shows few teachers are using VR in classrooms, 43 percent of district leaders in small districts want it in their schools, and 20 percent of district leaders say VR is a priority this year.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” says Amitabh Varshney, professor of computer science and dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at UMD. Varshney leads several major research efforts on the UMD campus involving virtual and augmented reality (AR), including close collaboration with health care professionals interested in developing AR-based diagnostic tools for emergency medicine and virtual reality training for surgical residents.

In addition to Varshney, the paper’s authors include Catherine Plaisant, a senior research scientist in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, and Eric Krokos, a doctoral student in computer science.

For the study, the UMD team used the concept of a “memory palace,” where people recall an object or item by placing it in an imaginary physical location like a building or town. This method—researchers refer to it as spatial mnemonic encoding—has been used since classical times, taking advantage of the human brain’s ability to spatially organize thoughts and memories.

The researchers recruited 40 volunteers–mostly UMD students unfamiliar with VR. The researchers split the participants into two groups: one viewed information first via a VR head-mounted display and then on a desktop; the other did the opposite.

Both groups received printouts of well-known faces—including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Marilyn Monroe—and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed the participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting—Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was positioned in the center of the room.

Read more about the researchers’ methods here.

The results showed an 8.8 percent overall improvement in recall accuracy among study participants who used the VR headsets.

In post-study questionnaires, all 40 participants said that they were completely comfortable–and adept–in navigating a desktop computer to access information, yet all but two said they preferred the immersive VR environment as a potential learning platform. The questionnaire also found that only two people said they felt “uncomfortable” using VR.

Many research participants reported being able to focus better with the immersive nature of the VR, and the research results reflected as much: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using virtual reality over the desktop display.

There has been much prior psychological research on the amount of recall that humans typically possess, notes Plaisant, who is an expert in human-computer interaction. Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests that the mind is inherently embodied, and that the way humans create and recall mental constructs is influenced by the way they perceive and move, she adds.

“This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace—experienced in an immersive virtual environment—could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” Plaisant says.

The UMD team believes this study will lay the groundwork for other scientific inquiry on the value of virtual reality and AR for education.

“By showing that virtual reality can help improve recall, it opens the door to further studies that look at the impact of virtual reality-based training modules at all levels—from elementary school children learning astronomy to trauma residents acquiring the latest knowledge in lifesaving procedures,” Varshney says. “We believe the future of education and innovation will benefit greatly from the use of these new visual technologies.”

Material from a press release was used in this report.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura