Enhancing the Effectiveness of Virtual Reality in Science Education Through an Experimental Intervention Involving Students’ Perceived Usefulness of Virtual Reality
Volume 4, Issue 1: Spring 2023. Special Collection: Learning in Immersive Virtual Reality. DOI: 10.1037/tmb0000084
by Joseph Ferdinand, Stephan Soller, Jens-Uwe Hahn, Jocelyn Parong, and Richard Göllner
Published onFeb 13, 2023
Enhancing the Effectiveness of Virtual Reality in Science Education Through an Experimental Intervention Involving Students’ Perceived Usefulness of Virtual Reality
This study examined whether the effectiveness of virtual reality (VR) in science education could be enhanced by providing students with relevant information about VR’s usefulness before a virtual lesson. On the basis of expectancy–value theory, we manipulated students’ perceived usefulness of VR by using video priming before presenting a virtual biology lesson. We then assessed how the intervention affected students’ presence, interest in the virtual lesson, and learning achievement. Additionally, we tested the relationships between presence and learning outcomes. A sample of 196 students in Grade 10 was randomly assigned to a learning-usefulness condition, a daily-life-usefulness condition, or a control condition (no priming intervention) in VR. The results showed that students in both experimental conditions perceived VR as significantly more useful for learning and had greater learning achievement than those in the control condition. In addition, students in the daily-life-usefulness condition experienced less presence than those in the control condition, but there was no difference between the learning-usefulness condition and the control condition in this regard. However, the intervention had no effect on students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson. Moreover, students in the two experimental conditions did not differ from each other on any of the outcomes we considered. Furthermore, the results revealed that students’ presence was positively associated with their interest in the virtual lesson but was not related to their learning achievement when the intervention’s effects were controlled for. These findings suggest that students’ awareness of VR’s usefulness could be a factor in VR’s effectiveness.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joseph Ferdinand, Hector Institute for Education Sciences and Psychology, University of Tübingen, Europastrasse 6, 72072 Tübingen, Germany [email protected]
In recent years, the use of immersive virtual reality (VR) has become increasingly prevalent in education. Researchers have long predicted that VR technology would revolutionize education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics domains in particular (Blascovich & Bailenson, 2005; Fernandez, 2017; Honey & Hilton, 2011; Salzman et al., 1997, 1999). In fact, VR provides a unique way for educators to teach and for students to engage with learning materials (Dede et al., 2017; Georgiou et al., 2007; Karutz & Bailenson, 2015; Won et al., 2019). Moreover, different affordances and characteristics of VR can facilitate learning in a way that is not possible in traditional classrooms (Dede et al., 2017; Karutz & Bailenson, 2015; Winn, 1993; Won et al., 2019). For example, VR can mirror natural environments very precisely at both a microlevel and a macrolevel. Furthermore, VR can create unusual or unnatural learning environments that motivate students and enhance their learning experience (Allcoat & von Mühlenen, 2018; Lau & Lee, 2015).
However, empirical research on VR’s effectiveness in learning and teaching has shown rather mixed results (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019; Parong & Mayer, 2018). Two recent meta-analyses (Luo et al., 2021; Wu et al., 2020) showed that VR is slightly more effective than other nonimmersive learning methods, but they also reported that a considerable number of the considered studies found no effect or a negative effect of VR on students’ learning achievement. Different factors are assumed to negatively affect VR’s effectiveness: potential distractions due to the seductive aspects of VR and its highly interactive nature (Makransky et al., 2021), increased cognitive load while learning with VR (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019; Meyer et al., 2019; Moreno & Mayer, 2000; Parong & Mayer, 2018), and a lack of pedagogical support in the currently available virtual learning simulations (Fowler, 2015). Moreover, learners might also associate VR much more with entertainment and gaming than with learning (Baxter & Hainey, 2019), which can be seen as another reason why the effectiveness of VR for learning is lower than one might expect. In this study, we investigated whether VR’s effectiveness in science education could be enhanced by integrating priming information into a virtual simulation to highlight VR’s usefulness for learning or daily life before presenting a virtual lesson.
VR’s Effectiveness in Science Education
Different pedagogical strategies have been developed to increase VR’s effectiveness in science education. Accordingly, a few studies have recently shown that VR’s effectiveness can be increased when used in conjunction with various scaffolding strategies (e.g., pretraining, summary prompts, and enactment). For instance, Meyer et al. (2019) showed that students who received pretraining before a biology lesson with a virtual simulation (The Body VR, 2016) performed significantly better on subsequent knowledge and transfer tests than those who learned with VR without pretraining or those who learned from watching videos with or without pretraining.
Similarly, Parong and Mayer (2018) also showed that adding summary prompts can enhance VR’s effectiveness. In this study, students had to pause the virtual biology lesson after each section to write a summary of the previous section. The results showed that students who implemented such a strategy performed as well as those who learned with PowerPoint.
Another recent study showed that using enactment after a virtual lesson led to better procedural knowledge and transfer (Makransky et al., 2021). Procedural knowledge refers to knowledge about how to do something (Anderson et al., 2001) and transfer of learning occurs when knowledge that is gained in one context is applied in another (Makransky & Petersen, 2021). Enactment is an activity-based instructional method. Students are physically engaged with concrete objects related to the lesson as a follow-up activity to better understand the learning procedures presented previously in virtual learning environments (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016; Makransky et al., 2021).
These research findings indicate that VR’s effectiveness can be increased by using additional instructional support that can be implemented during different phases of the learning process: either before, during, or after the lesson. However, the following specificities should be considered. First, these instructional supports are very useful for effective learning with VR, but each one has their own mechanism. For example, pretraining helps students familiarize themselves with similar content before the actual learning takes place. Summary prompts foster active cognitive processing during the lesson, and enactment enables students to better integrate the lesson they learned. Second, some of the scaffolding strategies are specifically shaped to apply to the content of the virtual lesson (pretraining and enactment). On the other hand, educators might be interested in practical strategies that are more independent from specific lessons but can simultaneously be integrated into the virtual learning simulation as a whole. Third, if the virtual simulation has to be stopped (summary prompts), students’ experiences and interactions in the virtual learning environment end up being repeatedly disrupted. Such repeated disruptions could probably affect students’ perceived presence (Cummings & Bailenson, 2016; Mestre & Fuchs, 2006). This is an issue because disrupting students’ immersion in the virtual learning environment may lessen one of VR’s primary advantages over other multimedia learning tools.
In contrast to these scaffolding strategies, we investigated whether VR’s effectiveness in science education increased when we added a brief instructional element that was not directly related to the lesson and did not stop the flow of the virtual simulation. In concrete terms, we aimed to increase students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool by using a brief video-priming procedure and assessing how it impacted VR’s effectiveness during a science lesson.
Perceived Usefulness and Students’ Learning Outcomes
In the present study, we argue that increasing students’ perceived usefulness of VR might be a very parsimonious pedagogical approach yet an effective way to increase VR’s effectiveness. The crucial role that students’ perceived usefulness of a school subject plays in, for example, the learning of that subject has been stressed in motivation psychology. According to expectancy–value theory (EVT; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Eccles et al., 1983; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002), perceived usefulness is the subjective value attributed to a task or a topic. A large body of research on EVT has shown that the perceived usefulness of a subject leads to more effective learning in traditional school settings and provides essential insights into how to increase students’ perceived usefulness of particular school subjects (Durik et al., 2015; Harackiewicz et al., 2014). Furthermore, empirical evidence has suggested that usefulness interventions lead to long-term positive effects on students’ persistence, effort, interest, and academic achievement in various school subjects (Anderman et al., 2001; Brisson et al., 2017; Gaspard et al., 2015; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000; Hidi & Renninger, 2006).
Interestingly, the pivotal role that students’ perceived usefulness of a multimedia learning tool plays in its effectiveness has also been stressed in the technology acceptance model (Davis, 1989). Students’ perceived usefulness is the most consistent predictor of students’ acceptance of an educational technology (Ma & Liu, 2004; Yousafzai et al., 2007a, 2007b), and acceptance is a fundamental prerequisite for the effective use of educational technology (Davis, 2011; Martins & Kellermanns, 2004). Given the fundamental role of students’ perceived usefulness in traditional classrooms and in learning with educational technology, we tested whether students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool could be increased through video priming. Subsequently, we tested whether the priming intervention would help enhance VR’s effectiveness in science education.
The Role of Presence in Learning With VR
In addition to students’ perceived usefulness of VR, students’ presence in the virtual learning environment may also influence their learning outcomes. Presence can be described as the illusion of being physically present in the virtual environment (Ijsselsteijn & Riva, 2003; Slater, 2018) and seems to play an essential role in VR’s effectiveness for educational purposes (Kontogeorgiou et al., 2008; Mikropoulos, 2006; Winn et al., 1999).
In learning with VR, presence can be seen as a central source for driving students’ motivation and may increase students’ willingness to engage with the learning materials (Lok et al., 2006). In this regard, several studies have found positive correlations between presence and different expressions of achievement-related behavior. For instance, recent empirical studies have shown that presence positively affected students’ intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of learning (Makransky & Lilleholt, 2018), influenced learners’ satisfaction (Bulu, 2012; Vrellis et al., 2016), and was associated with higher perceived learning (Makransky & Lilleholt, 2018).
Apart from students’ motivation, however, it is still unclear how presence affects students’ learning achievement. On the one hand, the feeling of being in a realistic environment might be a highly engaging experience that fosters students’ processing of the subject matter. On the other hand, experiencing a high level of presence in a virtual learning environment may constitute such a novel experience that it distracts learners from focusing on the learning material. Correspondingly, some studies have shown a positive effect of presence on students’ learning achievement (Kontogeorgiou et al., 2008; Mikropoulos, 2006; Winn et al., 1999), whereas other studies have shown the opposite effect (Makransky et al., 2021; Schrader & Bastiaens, 2012; Whitelock et al., 2000). Different explanations have been offered for why presence may negatively affect students’ learning achievement. First, it has been argued that students’ presence in VR could distract them from their learning goals (Makransky & Lilleholt, 2018), especially because advancements in VR technology facilitate the creation of high-quality immersive simulations (Bailenson et al., 2008). This could particularly be the case for students who are using VR for the first time or who have less experience with VR (Goncalves, 2005). Second, it has been shown that presence can consume too much of a learner’s attention, thereby resulting in cognitive overload, which can negatively affect conceptual understanding (Makransky & Petersen, 2021; Whitelock et al., 2000) and even decrease learning (Schrader & Bastiaens, 2012).
The cognitive–affective model of immersive learning (Makransky & Petersen, 2021) considers factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge about discrete, isolated content elements; Anderson et al., 2001), conceptual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and transfer of knowledge. Students’ presence may indirectly affect these different types of knowledge in different ways (Makransky & Petersen, 2021). For example, presence can create conditions that foster situational interest (Makransky & Petersen, 2021), which in turn can support behavior that facilitates knowledge acquisition (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Knogler et al., 2015). Therefore, presence may have an indirect positive effect on all of these different types of knowledge (Makransky & Petersen, 2021). On the other hand, presence can lead to higher cognitive load, which may hinder effective learning (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019; Meyer et al., 2019; Parong & Mayer, 2018). This is particularly the case for the acquisition of factual and conceptual knowledge (Makransky, Borre-Gude, & Mayer, 2019; Makransky & Petersen, 2021). Moreover, Makransky and Petersen (2021) argued that VR’s effectiveness for learning factual or procedural knowledge depends on how the virtual lesson is designed. For instance, virtual simulations that include seductive elements that distract students from learning (Makransky et al., 2021; Moreno & Mayer, 2002), may increase cognitive load.
Considering the role of presence in learning with VR, we assumed that providing students with relevant information about VR’s usefulness might also affect how students perceive their presence in the virtual learning environment. For instance, a VR usefulness intervention could help students focus more on the relevant aspects of the virtual lesson and increase their willingness to engage with the learning materials (Lok et al., 2006). This could also help reduce the influence of the seductive aspects of VR that are linked to higher presence. Therefore, a usefulness intervention through video priming could lead to less presence in a VR environment.
The Present Study
Inspired by EVT research, in this study, we examined the extent to which a usefulness intervention involving students’ perceived usefulness of VR would enhance VR’s effectiveness for learning in a virtual biology lesson. To do so, we used the virtual application The Body VR (2016), which is about the anatomical and physiological functions of cells in the human body. Then we assessed whether this intervention led to higher perceived usefulness of VR for learning and explored how it affected students’ presence. Subsequently, we also tested the relationship between presence and students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson and learning achievement.
The present study used an experimental design to address the following questions:
To what extent does a brief intervention that uses a video to prime the usefulness of VR for learning or for daily life before a virtual biology lesson increase the perceived usefulness of VR for learning?
To what extent does a brief intervention on the usefulness of VR for learning or for daily life positively impact students’ learning outcomes (interest in the virtual biology lesson and learning achievement)?
How does a brief intervention on the usefulness of VR for learning or for daily life affect students’ presence in the virtual learning environment?
To what extent is students’ experience of presence in VR related to their interest in the virtual biology lesson and their learning achievement?
One hundred ninety-six 10th-grade students (97 female adolescents; mean age M = 15.56, SD = 0.68) from 10 different high schools (academic track) in Germany participated in this study voluntarily. Both the participants and their parents or legal guardians were informed about the procedure, benefits, and risks of participating in the study and signed informed consent forms. Moreover, the Ethics Committee of the University of Tübingen reviewed and approved this study (Reference Number: 2019_1003_169).
Description of the Usefulness Intervention Using Video Priming
We used two versions of the priming video intervention to manipulate students’ perceived usefulness of VR for learning purposes. Each video was about 3.5 min long and was narrated by a professional speaker. In the first video, we presented several characteristics of VR as a useful tool for learning. We pointed out to participants that a unique feature of VR is that it enables students to immerse themselves in the virtual learning environment on a microlevel (e.g., studying the chemical composition of objects) or a macrolevel (e.g., studying the planets in the galaxy). We also told them they could observe and interact with the lesson materials as if they were actually in the virtual world themselves. In addition, participants were informed that in VR, students can conduct classroom experiments in different science subjects independently without the risk of accidents happening, and they can travel back in time to observe and analyze our ancestors’ ways of life. In the second video, however, we presented VR as an instrument that is useful in daily life. We also presented them with the same VR characteristics (e.g., immersion) that enabled the users to immerse themselves in a virtual world to observe and interact with its elements as if they were actually in the virtual world themselves (e.g., observing planets in the galaxy or traveling back in time). However, we focused more on concrete and useful applications in daily life without presenting any examples of explicit learning situations or mentioning learning. For instance, participants were informed about the increasing use of VR in different everyday life domains (e.g., physical therapy, observation of historical events, visiting museums). A translated version of the two scripts used to create the video is provided in Appendix D.
To ensure that the priming materials were well conceived, we first conducted a pilot study. Accordingly, we tested whether students’ perceived usefulness as a learning tool could be increased through the viewing of the priming videos. We also compared the two videos to assess to what extent the priming video on VR’s usefulness for learning lead to greater students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool. A convenience sample of 71 first-year university students (15 female students; mean age, M = 22.10, SD = 5.17) participated voluntarily in the pilot study and watched one of the priming videos (i.e., usefulness of VR for learning purposes or for daily life) or did not watch a video (control group). A one-way between-subjects analysis of variance was computed to compare the effect of the priming intervention on the perceived usefulness of VR. The results showed that the intervention had a significant effect on students’ perceived usefulness of VR for learning, F(2, 68) = 9.23, p < .001, η2 = .21. Post hoc comparisons using the Tukey honestly significant difference test indicated that students who watched the priming video on the usefulness of VR for learning purposes perceived VR as significantly more useful for learning (M = 3.21, SD = 0.30) than those in the control group (M = 2.80, SD = 0.38), p < .001. Similar results emerged when students who watched a video on the usefulness of VR for daily life (M = 3.13, SD = 0.36) were compared with those in the control group (M = 2.80, SD = 0.38), p < .01. There was no difference between the two experimental conditions (p > .05). These results showed that the priming materials were well conceived for the purposes of the study.
The Virtual Biology Lesson
The biology lesson is an interactive VR simulation about the cells in the human bloodstream called The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell (The Body VR, 2016). This lesson presents factual knowledge about how the circulatory system functions. The virtual lesson is around 13 min long and contains narration and immersive animations of the circulatory system and different parts of human cells. The simulation utilizes a specific characteristic of VR to enable learners to travel on a microlevel through an artery and into a cell while different parts of the cell and their functions are explained. Learners can also interact with the elements of the cell. For instance, they can move, rotate, or closely examine a blood cell. This simulation is available free of charge for noncommercial use and was previously used by Parong and Mayer (2018) and Meyer et al. (2019). Screenshots of the virtual lesson are provided in Appendix E.
The paper–pencil pretest consisted of questions about participants’ demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, age, and mother tongue), prior experience with VR, general interest, self-concept, and biology grades from the previous semester. For the prior experience scale, participants rated five statements (e.g., “I use a VR headset regularly”) on a 4-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Cronbach’s α as a measure of the internal consistency reliability of the scale for participants’ prior experience with VR was .74. The general interest in biology scale (Gaspard et al., 2015) consisted of five statements that students rated accordingly (e.g., “Biology is one of my favorite subjects”; α = .92). With regard to self-concept in biology (Arens et al., 2011, 2013), participants rated four statements (e.g., “It is easy for me to learn biology”; α = .84).
Postpriming Questionnaire in VR
Directly after the manipulation (video priming) in VR, participants were presented with a scale about their perceptions of the usefulness of VR for learning. After finishing the biology lesson, participants were presented with a scale regarding their perceived presence. They used the VR controller to fill out the survey in the virtual learning environment. The perceived usefulness of VR scale (Davis, 1989) consisted of seven statements that students rated accordingly (e.g., “Using VR can help me better understand various topics in school”; α = .78). In terms of presence (Lombard et al., 2009; Schubert et al., 2001), participants rated five statements about their experience and perception of themselves in the virtual learning environment (e.g., “In the virtual environment, I had the impression that I was actually there”; α = .73). All the scales are provided in Appendix B.
The paper–pencil posttest consisted of a scale concerning participants’ interest in the virtual biology lesson and a knowledge test (learning achievement). Using a 4-point scale, participants rated four statements about their interest (Bürgermeister et al., 2011) in the virtual biology lesson (e.g., “I would like to learn more about human cells in this way [with VR]”; α = .76). In this study, we used the same 16 multiple-choice questions from the knowledge test (see Appendix C) administered by Parong and Mayer (2018) to assess students’ learning achievement (factual knowledge about cells and the functions of the circulatory system). Participants received 1 point for each correct answer, for example, “Which molecule(s) cannot pass through a cell’s membrane without the help of a receptor protein?” The choices were as follows: (A) water, (B) oxygen, (C) glucose, (D) all of the above.
To present the virtual biology lesson to the students, we used a computer (Omen Laptop: Omen 15-dh0004ng i7/16GB/1TB HDD + 512GB SSD/GeForce RTX 2060 [Shadow Black]) in conjunction with the VR set HTC VIVE Pro. This virtual set includes two sensors, a head-mounted display, and two controllers. The sensors were placed in diagonally opposite corners of the classroom to create a virtual space where the students could access and interact with the virtual learning environment. The head-mounted display enabled students to access the lesson using the Steam software installed on the computer. The head-mounted displays had integrated headphones that facilitated each individual’s experience and blocked outside noise to improve immersion. Students used one of the controllers to start the simulation, answer questions (i.e., integrated scales in the virtual simulation), and interact with the lesson material.
Data were collected in different schools in groups consisting of 5–10 individual students who were supervised by at least two test assistants. Participants were randomly assigned to the learning-usefulness condition (VR as an instrument that is useful for learning), the daily-life-usefulness condition (VR as an instrument that is useful in daily life), or the control group (no intervention). Before the lesson, participants first filled out a questionnaire (pretest). They then used head-mounted displays to watch one of the priming videos on VR’s usefulness, or they did not watch either video (control group). Directly after watching the video, while they were still in the virtual learning environment, they used a VR controller to answer questions about their perceptions of the usefulness of VR as an educational tool. We decided to measure students’ perceived usefulness of VR right after the manipulation to ensure that the lesson’s difficulty or their experience in the virtual learning environment did not affect their judgment in this regard. Next, they participated in a virtual lesson on cells in the human body. After the virtual lesson, participants used the VR controller to report their perceived presence in the virtual learning environment. We assumed that it would be much better to assess students’ presence while they were still in VR instead of using a pencil-and-paper test to assess it at the end of the session.
Finally, participants took off the head-mounted displays, filled out a second questionnaire (posttest), and took the final knowledge test. All participants were seated for the entire session. Each session lasted approximatively 50 min, which included as follows: the general instructions and the pretest (10 min); the priming, the virtual lesson, and the assessments in VR (18–21.5 min); the posttest and the knowledge test (20 min).
We first tested students’ backgrounds—in terms of prior experience with VR and their biology backgrounds (interest, self-concept, and prior grades)—to make sure that the randomization of the participants into the three conditions was well balanced. The results of this analysis are presented in Table 1. To evaluate the effects of the intervention on the learning outcomes, we conducted a regression analysis with dummy variables using the control group as the baseline. As the data were collected in different schools, we took special care to account for the resulting nested structure of the data (number of clusters N = 10) by correcting the standard errors using the TYPE = COMPLEX specification, which was implemented in Mplus. For all direct effects, we report the standardized coefficients, and in Table 2, we report both the unstandardized and the standardized coefficients. All data and the code for the experiment are openly available via the Open Science Framework (Ferdinand et al., 2021).
Descriptive Statistics (M ± SD or n [%]) for Demographic Variables, Background Variables, and Learning Outcomes in the Three Groups, Randomized to the Learning-Usefulness, Daily-Life-Usefulness, and Control Conditions
Variable Sample size
Learning usefulness n = 81
Daily-life usefulness n = 57
Control n = 58
Students learning outcomes
Perceived usefulness of VR
Interest in the virtual lesson
Note. Grades refer to self-reported biology grades from the semester prior to this study. VR = virtual reality.
Summary of Regression Analyses for All the Predictors, Background Variables Related to Biology, and Prior Experience With VR and Outcome Variables (N = 196)
Learning usefulness vs. control
Daily-life usefulness vs. control
Prior experience with VR
Perceived usefulness of VR
Interest in the VR lesson
Note. Values in bold indicate statistically significant results; SE = standard error; VR = virtual reality
First, we tested for whether the students in the three conditions differed in terms of their prior experience with VR and their biology backgrounds (general interest, self-concept, and self-reported grades in biology from the previous semester) by comparing the two experimental groups and the control group. The results of the regression analyses revealed no differences between the three conditions in this regard (all ps > .05). Table 1 presents descriptive statistics for all the background and outcomes variables separately for each condition, and Table 2 presents a summary of the regression analyses, the standardized coefficients, and the p values.
Students’ Perceived Usefulness of VR as a Learning Tool
We tested for whether the intervention had a significant effect on students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool across the three conditions. The results showed that students in the learning-usefulness condition (M = 3.58, SD = 0.32) perceived VR as significantly more useful for learning than those in the control group (M = 3.35, SD = 0.41); B = 0.35, t = 3.76, p < .001. Similarly, students in the daily-life-usefulness condition (M = 3.56, SD = 0.35) perceived VR as significantly more useful for learning than those in the control group; B = 0.29, t = 3.31, p < .01. There was no difference between students in the learning-usefulness condition and those in the daily-life-usefulness condition (p > .05). The results demonstrated that the two interventions were both capable of increasing students’ perceived usefulness of VR.
Effects of Each Intervention on Students’ Presence, Interest in the Virtual Biology Lesson, and Learning Achievement
Regarding students’ experience of presence in the virtual learning environment, the results showed a descriptive difference between the control group (M = 3.56, SD = 0.40) and the learning-usefulness condition (M = 3.39, SD = 0.48), but this difference was not statistically significant (B = −0.21, t = −1.74, p = .082). However, the results showed that students in the control group (M = 3.56, SD = 0.40) reported a significantly higher presence than those in the daily-life-usefulness condition (M = 3.39, SD = 0.51), B = −0.23, t = −2.20, p = .028. There was no difference between students in the two experimental groups (p > .05) in this regard.
The statistical analysis also revealed no significant differences between any of the groups with regard to students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson: learning-usefulness condition (M = 3.53, SD = 0.47), daily-life-usefulness condition (M = 3.50, SD = 0.53), control group (M = 3.56, SD = 0.50); all ps > .05.
When comparing students’ learning achievement, however, the results showed a positive effect of the intervention. Students in the learning-usefulness condition performed better on the biology test after the virtual lesson (M = 7.38, SD = 2.70) than those in the control group (M = 6.66, SD = 2.74), B = 0.18, t = 2.83, p < .01. Similarly, there was a significant difference between the students in the daily-life-usefulness condition (M = 7.21, SD = 2.74) and those in the control group (M = 6.66, SD = 2.74), B = 0.12, t = 1.98, p = .048. There was no difference in learning achievement between the students in the two experimental groups (p > .05).
Relationships Between Students’ Presence, Interest in the Biology Lesson, and Learning Achievement
We also examined the relationships across the different learning outcomes. The results indicated that students who experienced higher presence in the learning environment also reported greater interest in the virtual biology lesson (r = .51, p < .001) when the impact of the usefulness intervention was controlled for. Further analysis revealed that students’ experience of presence in VR was not related to their learning achievement (r = −.07, p > .05) when we controlled for the effect of the intervention. Finally, there was no relationship between students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson and their learning achievement (r = .10, p > .05). In sum, we found that level of presence was strongly associated with students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson, but the presence was not associated with their learning achievement. Table 3 presents the bivariate correlations between all the predictor variables, background variables, and learning outcomes. Additionally, we presented in Appendix A detailed results of correlation analyses between students’ background variables and their learning outcomes.
Correlation Matrix for All Background Variables and Outcome Variables (N = 196)
1. Perceived usefulness
3. Learning achievement
4. Interest in the virtual biology lesson
5. Grade in biologya
6. Prior experience with VR
7. General interest in biology
8. Self-concept in biology
11. Mother tongue
Note. Pearson correlations were computed for all correlations between continuous variables, and point-biserial correlations were computed for the correlations between continuous and categorical variables. VR = virtual reality. a Grades refer to students’ self-reported biology grades from the first half of the school year (2019–2020). Moreover, in German schools, grades range from 1 (excellent) to 6 (unsatisfactory); therefore, we reverse-coded the grades so that a positive correlation means that a variable was positively associated with students’ biology grades. b n.s. = nonsignificant. To assess the relationship between gender and mother tongue (two categorical variables), a chi-square analysis was computed. There was no significant relationship between the two variables, χ2 (1, N = 196) = .65, p = .421. * p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001.
In this study, we aimed to determine whether VR’s effectiveness could be increased through an intervention on students’ perceived usefulness of VR for learning and for daily life. To do so, we conducted a usefulness intervention involving video priming and assessed the intervention’s effects on different learning outcomes in a student sample.
The empirical contributions of this study are threefold: First, informing students about the usefulness of VR for learning or for daily life increased students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool and reduced students’ presence in the virtual environment when students in the daily-life-usefulness group were compared with those in the control group. Second, the brief intervention on VR’s usefulness also positively impacted students’ learning achievement but did not affect students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson. Compared with those who did not receive either kind of priming information, students in both VR usefulness conditions performed significantly better on the biology test. Finally, our results showed that students’ presence in the virtual environment was positively associated with their interest in the virtual biology lesson but was not related to their learning achievement.
Usefulness Intervention in VR and Students’ Learning Outcomes
Contrary to previous scaffolding strategies (Makransky et al., 2021; Meyer et al., 2019; Parong & Mayer, 2018) used to enhance VR’s effectiveness, our approach was more general, parsimonious, and practical; thus, it can be integrated into any virtual learning simulation as a whole. More importantly, the empirical evidence from this study shows that this parsimonious approach can be effective for improving VR’s effectiveness in science education. In fact, the intervention increased students’ perceived usefulness of VR as a learning tool, lowered students’ presence in the virtual environment and more importantly, led to better learning achievement.
In line with previous EVT research in traditional school settings (Anderman et al., 2001; Brisson et al., 2017; Gaspard et al., 2015), we showed that students’ perceived usefulness of VR for learning is a contributing factor for students’ effective learning in VR. Providing students with very brief information about the usefulness of VR for learning or daily life resulted in greater learning achievement. As such, our findings also help extend common concepts from EVT regarding students’ learning motivation (Brisson et al., 2017; Eccles et al., 1983; Gaspard et al., 2015; Wigfield et al., 2016) to science education in VR.
Relationships Between Students’ Experience of Presence in VR and Their Learning Outcomes
Some studies have shown that presence is an important contributing factor to students’ motivation and learning in VR (Kontogeorgiou et al., 2008; Mikropoulos, 2006; Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011; Winn & Windschitl, 2000), whereas other empirical studies have not confirmed the effect of presence on students’ learning achievement (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019; Parong & Mayer, 2018; Vrellis et al., 2016). We showed that the relevance of presence for learning in VR may depend on the outcome measure that is being considered. Whereas presence showed a positive association with students’ interest in the virtual biology lesson, there was no association between presence and students’ learning achievement. A virtual simulation, such as the one we used here, can provide a learning environment that learners find fascinating as it includes realistic graphics and a perception of space that can induce a feeling of immersion. Thereby, experiencing this immersive and exciting environment might increase students’ interest in learning with VR (Makransky & Petersen, 2021), even though students’ interest was not found to be related to their actual learning.
Makransky and Petersen (2021) proposed that high presence could facilitate interest, intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, and embodiment, which in turn could enhance VR’s effectiveness. However, the authors also stressed the possible negative effect of high presence on cognitive load and self-regulation in VR. In this vein, the current findings provide a potential way to control for students’ presence in a virtual learning environment to some extent. Specifically, our results showed that stressing the usefulness of VR can suppress students’ presence in the virtual environment, which might have helped them to be more engaged with the contents of the lesson and less involved in the experience of being in the virtual environment. Furthermore, our findings suggest that higher presence does not depend exclusively on students’ immersion in VR due to the technical features, but it can also result from students’ individual perceptions (Slater, 2004) or a lack of focus during the virtual learning session. In this study, students with similar backgrounds (e.g., similar levels of experience with VR) experienced the same simulation in this study, yet they reported different levels of presence after they had been primed to perceive VR as useful for learning or for daily life. It seems that students in different conditions experienced the virtual learning environment differently (Slater, 2004) due to the priming information. In sum, controlling students’ level of presence in VR by implementing a usefulness intervention did not undermine students’ interest in learning with VR or their learning achievement. On the contrary, the intervention had no impact on students’ interest. Moreover, students who received such an intervention experienced less presence but performed significantly better on the knowledge test than those who did not.
The empirical evidence from this study suggests that students’ presence in the virtual learning environment was not associated with their learning achievement when the effect of the intervention was controlled for. However, in this study, we considered only factual knowledge. Therefore, this study’s findings do not necessarily demonstrate that students’ experience of presence in VR is not related to students’ learning. The type of knowledge (e.g., factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge) presented in VR may moderate the relationship between presence and learning outcomes (Makransky & Petersen, 2021). For instance, if the virtual simulation presents conceptual or procedural material rather than factual knowledge, presence may have a stronger relationship with conceptual or procedural learning outcomes. Some initial evidence points to differences in the associations between presence and learning depending on the type of knowledge that is presented as well as the specific content of the lesson. For example, increased presence during a factual VR lesson was associated with lower learning outcomes for factual knowledge (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019), but there were no differences in learning for conceptual knowledge (Parong & Mayer, 2018). On the other hand, increased presence in procedural lessons in VR is often associated with increased learning of procedural material (Radianti et al., 2020). Future research may want to focus on the exact mechanisms and interactions of knowledge learned and tested in VR that facilitates learning.
Future Directions and Limitations
Although this study contributes to the current literature on how to enhance VR’s effectiveness for learning and teaching science, it has three major limitations that should be addressed in future research.
First, the interactivity of the actual virtual simulation used in this study (The Body VR, 2016) is limited to a few functions (e.g., rotation of various cell elements, production of proteins…). Whereas interactive multimedia learning tools, such as VR, can facilitate deep learning by engaging learners in the lesson and activating their interest (Evans & Gibbons, 2007), interactivity in multimedia tools is also a very complex process, and its effects on learning are not straightforward. Interactivity in multimedia involves the learning tool’s affordances, the learners’ characteristics (e.g., prior knowledge, self-regulation), and behavioral, cognitive, and affective activities (Domagk et al., 2010). Moreover, interactivity can also impose a higher cognitive load (Paas et al., 2003) and can have a negative effect on learning achievement (Moreno & Valdez, 2005; Song et al., 2014). Therefore, VR simulations that allow learners to be more interactively engaged might result in different findings. Given these issues, we would be very interested in doing a similar study with other virtual applications that offer students more opportunities to interact with the lesson materials.
Second, our usefulness intervention reduced students’ level of presence in the virtual learning environment. Considering that higher presence was related to greater interest in the virtual biology lesson but had no association with students’ learning achievement, it seems that a higher level of presence fosters motivational and affective aspects of learning (e.g., situational interest). However, higher level of presence is not necessarily beneficial for effective learning, especially when factual learning is considered. Future research could try to answer the questions raised in this article about the relationship between an increased level of presence and learning achievement. In this study, presence is also defined as the illusion of being there. However, different conceptualizations of presence (Schubert et al., 2001; Witmer & Singer, 1994) in which presence is defined from a more autonomous and agentic perspective could have different results. For this reason, future research is needed to test whether the effects of presence presented in this study can also be found with other presence measures that operationalize presence in different ways.
Third, students in the two experimental conditions spent about 3.5 min longer in the virtual learning environment than those in the control condition. In evaluating this limitation, it is important to ask whether the extra time spent could have served as a buffer that helped reduce a potential novelty effect and might subsequently have affected students’ learning achievement. It should also be considered possible that this period might have negatively affected students’ experience of presence in VR. However, despite the plausibility of these alternative explanations, they were not supported by the data in this study.
A novelty effect can result from information or experience (e.g., innovative content or a new multimedia learning tool; Huang, 2003, 2020). It has been argued that the novelty effect may lead to an increase in effort, which in turn may lead to learning gains (Clark, 1983; Clark & Craig, 1992). However, such novelty effects tend to disappear over time as students get used to the medium (Clark, 1983; Clark & Craig, 1992), and as a result, learning achievement would be reduced. Nevertheless, a recent longitudinal study concluded that the novelty effect might not steeply decrease when individuals become familiar with the use of VR and that it does not necessarily increase learning (Huang, 2020). Accordingly, the time students spent in the VR environment due to a possible reduced novelty effect cannot explain the current findings.
With regard to presence, the results of this study show that there was no difference between the learning-usefulness condition and the control condition, suggesting that students’ experience of presence is not due to the extra 3 min they spent in VR. Until now, there has not been enough empirical evidence to definitively determine whether or not students’ presence would diminish with the time spent in the virtual learning environment. In this regard, Stanney et al. (1998) argued that time spent in VR will lead to a higher level of presence due to increased familiarity and sensory adaptation to the virtual environment, but it can also lead to lower presence if adverse effects (e.g., motion sickness) intensify over time. However, a previous study on presence in video games showed that short-term time differences had no effect on presence (Lachlan & Krcmar, 2011). Accordingly, it would be interesting to replicate this study by ensuring that students in all three conditions spend the exact same amount of time in VR.
The current findings reveal that students’ awareness of the usefulness of VR for learning purposes can be successfully increased by presenting a brief video that informs students of the usefulness of VR before a virtual lesson. Most importantly, the results suggest that such priming intervention also impacts students’ presence in the virtual environment and learning achievement. Students’ lack of awareness about the usefulness of VR seems detrimental for VR’s effectiveness as it had a negative effect on students’ learning achievement. These results suggest that a usefulness intervention could help control presence without reducing interest in learning with VR and at the same time foster learning. Considering the positive effect of this parsimonious approach to students’ learning achievement, it is recommended that students be pedagogically prepared and fully aware of VR’s usefulness before using VR for learning and teaching.
Appendix A: Relationships Between Students’ Background Variables and Their Presence in VR, Interest in the Biology Lesson, and Learning Achievement
We also tested the relationship between the background variables related to prior experience with VR and biology and students’ presence, interest in the virtual lesson, and learning achievement. The results revealed that students’ prior experience with VR was positively related to their perceived usefulness of VR (r = .21, p = .047). Students who had more experience with VR also perceived VR as more useful for learning than those who had less experience with VR. By contrast, greater experience with VR was associated with less presence in the VR environment (r = −.07, p = .010). In other words, students with greater experience with VR reported less presence in the learning environment. However, students’ prior VR experience was not related to their interest in the virtual biology lesson or their learning achievement (all ps > .05).
Students’ general interest in biology was positively associated with students’ presence in the virtual learning environment (r = .15, p < .001) and their interest in the virtual lesson (r = .38, p < .001), but students’ general interest was not related to their learning achievement (p > .05). With regard to students’ self-concept in biology, the analysis showed that students’ self-concept in biology was not associated with their presence in the VR environment (p > .05). However, students’ self-concept was positively associated with both their interest in the virtual lesson (r = .21, p = .019) and their learning achievement (r = .23, p < .001).
The results also showed that students’ self-reported grades in biology from the previous semester had a strong positive association with their learning achievement after the virtual lesson (r = .38, p < .001). Students who had better grades also performed significantly better than those with poorer grades in biology. Furthermore, students who reported better prior grades in biology also experienced less presence in VR (r = − .13, p < .01). Table 3 presents the bivariate correlations between all the predictor variables, background variables, and learning outcomes.
Appendix B: A Translated Version of the Relevant Scales From German Into English
Prior experience with VR
I know exactly what is meant by “virtual reality.”
I have already explored the topic of “virtual reality” more deeply.
I have often come into contact with the topic of “virtual reality” (e.g., on the internet or on television).
I regularly use “virtual reality” myself. 5 I am already very familiar with VR technology.
General interest in biology (adapted from Gaspard et al., 2015)
Biology is one of my favorite subjects.
I find it easy to pay attention in biology class because I find the topics exciting.
I enjoy learning about topics in biology class.
I simply like biology class.
I work hard in biology because I enjoy the topics in biology.
Self-concept in biology (adapted from Arens et al., 2011, 2013)
I simply have no talent for biology.
I do not feel especially strong in biology.
I am good in biology.
I find it easy to learn biology.
Perceived usefulness of VR for learning (adapted from Davis, 1989)
VR technology is useful for learning.
Using VR can help me better understand various topics in school.
Even difficult subjects can be learned well with VR technology.
VR technology helps me imagine complex things more easily.
VR technology can make learning much more exciting.
Students can learn significantly better with VR technology.
The use of VR technology would also certainly enrich learning in schools.
Presence (adapted from Schubert et al., 2001 and Lombard et al., 2009)
In the virtual environment, I had the impression that I was actually there.
When I was in the virtual learning environment, I almost forgot about the environment outside of VR.
I felt like I was directly in the bloodstream.
I could observe the different elements of the somatic cells really well.
The somatic cells in the virtual learning environment really looked real.
Interest in the virtual biology lesson (adapted from Bürgermeister et al., 2011)
I found the virtual lesson exciting.
I liked the topic of the virtual lesson.
I enjoyed this virtual lesson on the topic of somatic cells.
I would like to learn more about human cells in this way [with VR].
Appendix C: Knowledge Test on the Virtual Biology Lesson
Which molecule(s) cannot pass through a cell’s membrane without the help of a receptor protein? a. Water b. Oxygen c. Glucose d. All of the above
List the order of filaments in the cytoskeleton from narrowest to widest. a. Microfilament, intermediate filament, microtubule b. Intermediate filament, microtubule, microfilament c. Microtubule, intermediate filament, microfilament d. Microfilament, microtubule, intermediate filament
Which type of cells in the bloodstream are more commonly known as platelets? a. Leukocytes b. Monocytes c. Erythrocytes d. Thrombocytes
In what process are ribosomes involved? a.Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production b. Protein synthesis c. Protein transportation d. Both B and C
Up to how many steps can kinesin motor protein take in a second? a.50 b. 100 c. 150 d. 200
Along which filament of the cytoskeleton does the kinesin motor protein move? a. Microfilament b. Intermediate filament c. Microtubule d. All of the above
What is the function of red blood cells? a. Defending against pathogens b. Oxygen transport c. Protein synthesis d. Both b and c
In what structure do proteins get transported? a. Vesicle b. Rough endoplasmic reticulum c. Kinesin motor protein d. Ribosome
Which type of blood cell can turn into a macrophage? a. Erythrocyte b. Monocyte c. Thrombocyte d. None of the above
What is produced as a by-product during ATP production in the mitochondria? a. Actin and kinesin b. Formic acid and water c. Adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and carbon dioxide d. Water and carbon dioxide
Where are mitochondria located? a. Free floating in the cytoplasm b. On the rough endoplasmic reticulum c. In the nucleus d. Attached to vesicles
Which type of blood cell takes up almost of half of the blood’s volume a. Leukocytes b. Monocytes c. Erythrocytes d. Thrombocytes
What is the main source of energy in the cell? a. DNA b. ADP c. ATP d. Both b and c
What transports larger structures within the cell? a. Ribosomes b. Vesicles c. Kinesin motor protein d. Cytoplasm
Which of the following elements determines the structure of proteins? a. Ribosomes b. The endoplasmic reticulum c. DNA d. The cytoskeleton
Which structure allows entry and exit of larger molecules into the nucleus? a.Cytoskeleton b. Protein filaments c. Sodium potassium pump d. Ribosomes
Appendix D Scripts of the Videos
Version 1: VR as an Effective Tool for Learning
Thank you very much for your participation in this short teaching unit. Before we start with the content, we would like to first show you, in this short video, some features of virtual reality (VR) and its great potential for learning.
VR is increasingly being used to teach educational material and lessons in an interesting and exciting way. In VR, students in chemistry or physics can see things that you would not be able to see in your typical classroom. For example, students can visit a damaged nuclear reactor such as in Fukushima or Chernobyl as part of a lesson on radioactivity and analyze chemical residues and measure radioactivity there.
Furthermore, in VR, students can experience things for themselves that are completely beyond our ability to physically observe. For example, they can enter distant planets and explore their composition in space directly, as if the students were right in the middle of the action.
In history lessons, students can take trips back in time to explore and learn how extinct animals, such as dinosaurs or certain underwater animals, lived. Or they can visit a market in the 13th century to learn how our ancestors organized their lives at that time.
In particular, VR is increasingly used to learn new and complex topics. Here again, there are three reasons why learning with virtual reality can bring many benefits:
VR can present difficult and complex concepts in a simple and playful way. A virtual simulation allows students to better understand how complex things work. For example, virtual realities can also be used to better understand the topic of “linear functions” in mathematics by allowing students to sketch graphs and view them in a three-dimensional environment.
Learning with VR is much more motivating and interesting. Learning with VR contributes to making students more motivated and more interested in learning. The student is in the middle of the action and experiences the learning material much more vividly. In the virtual classroom, for example, the student will not only consult books on global warming, but will be able to observe the consequences for animals or Antarctic glaciers first hand.
Students play a more active role. Instead of just sitting in class and listening, students can look at things closely in VR and compare and combine them with one another. It is even possible that they may even try things out for themselves that would be impossible or difficult to carry out in reality. For example, during chemistry class, students with VR can look at the composition of different chemical elements in detail, or can try to execute chemical reactions explained in the schoolbook themselves.
VR offers the opportunity to learn many new concepts and lessons in an exciting way. Students can try out and discover a wide range of things in virtual lessons or even carry out experiments themselves.
Version 2: General Information on VR and a Few of Its Uses in Daily Life
Thank you very much for your participation in this short teaching unit. Before we start with the content, we would like to first show you, in this short video, some characteristics and the great potential of virtual reality (VR) and its various applications in many areas.
With the help of these VR headsets, you can immerse yourself in an artificial world that can be very similar to our real world. Maybe you have already had some experience with this technology yourself. VR is now widely used to experience different things in a realistic way or even to help people. For example, VR was already used in 2005 to help people relearn body movements and to prevent possible physical impairments.
In addition, VR technology allows visitors to experience the past first hand. For example, you can visit a market in the 13th century to see how our ancestors organized their lives or watch different animals that have already gone extinct. It is also possible to experience things that are completely beyond our ability to physically observe. VR users can experience space up close or enter different planets of the solar system. You can also observe the underwater world and the animals that live there as if you were right in the middle of the action.
VR is used in everyday life and in different areas. Here are three characteristics of VR that show how diverse this technology is:
VR is used as an aid in everyday life. VR users can participate in various events remotely, as if they were at the event in person, with the help of a virtual simulation. For example, when children are in hospital, there are already programs that allow patients to share beautiful moments with their families during their stay in hospital. Some news agencies are now reporting with the help of VR as if they were right there at the actual event.
The VR experience looks real. VR users typically perceive a VR simulation as real. For example, people suffering from acrophobia can be trained in VR to repeatedly enter and jump up and down on a balcony of a skyscraper in a virtual simulation, which allows them to gradually reduce their phobia. One of the largest real estate internet portals for flat or rental searches also makes use of the feature of VR by allowing VR users to view the various rooms of a flat from home as if they were in that flat themselves.
Users play a more active role. With the increasing use of VR in various areas, users have the opportunity to take a hands-on look at many things. In a virtual museum, users can touch exhibits without damaging them. Or users can “dive” into a painting to get a closer look at the setting in all its details.
VR offers a very wide range of opportunities to try out new things and experiences. VR opens the door to a world that is not always accessible in real life. That is why many users are very convinced and enthusiastic about VR technology.
Appendix E: Screenshots of the Virtual Learning Simulations
Waterproofing is the process of making a structure impervious to water. It involves the use of materials and techniques that prevent water from penetrating the surface or seeping into the interior of a building. Waterproofing is essential in preventing damage to the structure caused by water intrusion, which can lead to rot, mold, and other problems.