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We are Learning in a Virtual World: Research into VR’s Impact on Learning

Incorporating virtual reality (VR) in your class is a novel way to grab your students’ attention, but its learning benefits are unclear. As it is an emerging technological trend, research into the impact of VR on learning and in language acquisition is still nascent. However, two recent studies from the fields of engineering and media studies show there are many advantages to using VR activities in language classrooms.

Slavova & Mu (2018) measured knowledge acquisition by comparing student performance on a timed test after introducing a new concept through a VR experience versus traditional PowerPoint slides. The students in the VR group showed a better understanding of conceptual information but were unable to recall specific details,like dates.The researchers conjectured that the latter could be caused by an inability to take notes in and the high cognitive demand of the virtual experience.Nevertheless, they determined that students found the social functions and VR productivity tools very appealing. Although VR might help students understand complex topics, it provided few opportunities for students to interact—a key component for co-creating knowledge. For that reason, Slavova & Mu (2008) recommend using VR for supplemental activities, especially in blending learning contexts.

As opposed to Slavova & Mu (2018)’s study, which looked at more general learning outcomes, Cho (2018)’s experiment looked at the effect of VR on a language-related concept: namely, Korean vocabulary words. Cho (2018) compared the effectiveness of learning a second language in 2D versus 3D, measuring spatial presence, enjoyment, and motivation. The study found that VR simulations provide “authentic-like” environments (e.g., hotel lobby, train, classroom) for interaction and language practice; and, thus, a fully immersive experience. Students enjoyed practicing in the virtual scenarios and reported feeling less anxious while doing so, in part because of the anonymity brought about by certain virtual programs. This helped to increase their intrinsic motivation, or desire to learn.

Not only did students enjoy the virtual experience, it also led to improved vocabulary usage. Cho (2018) found that the VR experience was effective for retention, as well, as Spatial Presence Theory, which claims “a spatial presence as the phenomenal sense of ‘being there’ including automatic responses to spatial cues and the mental models of mediated spaces that create the illusions of place (F. Biocca, Harms, and Burgoon, 2003, p. 459),”suggests practice during the VR experience taps into subconscious learning. The relationship between spatial presence and memory, especially episodic memory, also helps aid language learning.These studies seem to suggest that we might not be teaching in a virtual world any time soon, but we will be sending our students there pretty often.

by Kimberly Rehak for Express English 412

#virtualreality #vr #languageeducation #spatialpresence


Cho, Y. (2018). How spatial presence in VR affects memory retention and motivation on second language learning: A comparison of desktop and immersive VR-based learning (Master’s thesis, Syracuse University). Retrieved from:

Slavova, Y. and Mu, M. (2018). A comparative study of the learning outcomes and experience of VR in education. Retrieved from:

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