What classroom conditions best promote student learning?

Virtual reality research provides insight into the most effective classroom environments
Prashant Sharma, pixabay.com
Prashant Sharma, pixabay.com

As 11-year-old Lisa enters the lab where she is to participate in a classroom experiment, she is surprised to see no classroom, no other children, and no teacher. She sits down to wait. On the table in front of her is a large pair of goggles – similar to ski goggles, but different: They are plugged into a computer and attached to a plastic frame, and on the sides are headphones. The goggles appear to have lenses, but the lenses are opaque. She has never seen goggles like these before, and wonders what they are for.

Soon she discovers that what she is looking at is a virtual reality headset. Lisa will be taking part in an experiment in virtual reality (VR), and the goggles will allow her to enter the virtual classroom. Now it’s also clear why Lisa is alone: Her classmates and teacher exist only virtually.

What are the advantages of a virtual classroom?

In recent years, VR has gained popularity in psychological research. In these studies, participants enter into carefully designed and programmed virtual worlds, visualized through a head-mounted display. Investigations can be carried out under standardized and controlled test conditions, similar to those in a lab. Every participant experiences the same virtual environment and everything that happens has been deliberately planned.

“Virtual classrooms can provide valuable insights into the effects of classroom conditions on students’ self-regulation and learning.”

Because VR environments can be very similar to the real world, the behavior and emotions of study participants can be assumed to be comparable to what people experience in real life. Thus, virtual environments combine the advantages of laboratory and field studies and allow researchers to answer questions that traditional approaches would be unable to address.

As an education researcher, I am convinced that virtual classrooms can provide valuable insights into the effects of classroom conditions on students’ self-regulation and learning. Exploring questions such as whether students learn better when sitting near the teacher or farther away, and whether sitting near the teacher is especially beneficial for those students who have difficulty paying attention and controlling their behavior, would normally require collecting elaborate data in real-world classrooms.

Collecting data without disrupting learning

Real classrooms are complex environments in which many things are happening simultaneously and unexpected events are constantly occurring. It is therefore difficult to determine how single factors, such as the location of a student’s seat, relate to self-regulation and learning. Moreover, it is difficult, if not impossible, to collect and interpret data on eye movements and brain activity in a classroom setting. Gathering useful data would also require observing a large number of classrooms, since only very few students in a given classroom sit either very near the teacher or at a considerable distance. It is, of course, also hardly reasonable to create conditions in a real classroom that are likely to impair learning; parents would surely object to their children participating in a study that might jeopardize students’ academic achievement.

“Virtual environments combine the advantages of laboratory and field studies and allow researchers to answer questions that traditional approaches would be unable to address.”

Virtual classrooms offer a way to avoid these issues. They are standardized and controlled learning environments; they allow for the collection of data on eye movements and brain activity; and they can focus on non-curricular subject matter, thereby largely excluding effects of prior knowledge. Furthermore, they do not endanger students’ real-life academic outcomes.

The use of VR is a wonderful opportunity for education research in general, and for my research in particular. The results we are seeing from VR classroom studies have the potential to improve evidence-based teaching and to help us adapt lessons and environments to meet the needs of individual students. My recent research using virtual classrooms has shown that sitting beside the teacher may not be as beneficial to students with self-regulation difficulties as we once thought. And if VR helps challenge such commonly held assumptions, it could transform our understanding of a truly effective learning environment.

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