Different Dimensions of Learning: Measuring Brain Activity in Virtual Environments

What is the best way to help students learn challenging anatomy concepts outside of the anatomy laboratory? Anatomy educators have struggled with this question, and the rise of virtual environments offers exciting possible answers, depending in part on how our brains respond to these environments.

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Understanding how learning might occur in a virtual world requires the perspective of learners, teachers, and researchers in education and neuroscience. Sarah Anderson’s PhD project brought together a team of anatomy and medical educators, Heather Jamniczky and Sylvain Coderre, an applied health professions neuroeducation researcher, Kent Hecker, and a neuroscientist with expertise in learning, Olave Krigolson. Our article “Quantifying two-dimensional and three-dimensional stereoscopic learning in anatomy using electroencephalography” in npj Science of Learning compares different virtual learning environments using brain-based measures of learning.

What was the main aim of your research?

Our team was interested exploring the brain activity and performance of participants as they learned and retained anatomical structures of the brain in three different virtual environments: 2D, 3D and a combination of 2D and 3D. We were also interested in whether measures of brain activity while learning were more sensitive than more traditional measures of learning, such as test performance and time focused on the task.

Why did you decide to investigate this?

With the increasing availability of virtual learning environments in both 2D and 3D and decreasing class time dedicated to teaching anatomy in many programs, we were interested in what virtual environment could best be used for building knowledge and retention in anatomy education, particularly for students working on their own outside of class.

What were the key findings from the study?

We found that using a combination of 2D and 3D images while providing feedback produces stronger learning and retention than either a 2D environment or a 3D environment with feedback alone. The ‘combined’ environment also allows for transfer of learning between these two types of environments. Interestingly, measures of brain activity are more sensitive to quantifying learning than using performance measures alone, and using these measures in combination with traditional measures such as performance may help to provide a more clear picture of what is occurring during learning activities. 

What’s the bigger picture of your research findings?

Our work helps educators in fields that rely heavily on challenging spatial representations of objects, like engineering, geology and the health professions, envision how best to use virtual reality environments outside of class time in order to help students maximize learning and retention. Our work also provides information on optimizing classroom instruction for just in time learning/teaching opportunities

What next? What further research is needed in this area?

This work is part of the core research mission of The Health Education Neuroassessment Laboratory (THENaL)at the University of Calgary, where we are developing and assessing the neural correlates of learning and decision making within the health professions. This Nature study sets the foundation for future research teasing apart how best to apply the science of learning to the tools provided by new technologies, in order to enable excellent applied health professions education.

Sarah J. Anderson

Instructor, University of Calgary