When using virtual reality as a teaching tool, context and feeling real matter: People remember foreign vocabulary better when lessons are associated with distinct environments

A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context and realism matter.

The research is published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

“The context in which we learn things can help us remember them better,” said Jesse Rissman, the paper’s corresponding author and a UCLA associate professor of psychology. “We wanted to know if learning foreign languages in virtual reality environments could improve recall, especially when there was the potential for two sets of words to interfere with each other.”

Researchers asked 48 English-speaking participants to try to learn 80 words in two phonetically similar African languages, Swahili and Chinyanja, as they navigated virtual reality settings.

Wearing VR headsets, participants explored one of two environments — a fantasy fairyland or a science fiction landscape — where they could click to learn the Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages in the same VR environment; others learned one language in each environment.

Participants navigated through the virtual worlds four times over the course of two days, saying the translations aloud each time. One week later, the researchers followed up with a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.

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