Virtual Reality and Concept Development

Students may develop misunderstandings of science due to a variety of factors including representations, teachings or models that do not fully explain a phenomenon or incorrectly explain a phenomenon. Virtual reality can help to create sound scientific conceptions if it is designed correctly. Research has found that current conceptions can be challenged by new ones especially if they arouse curiosity and that conceptual change is greater when engagement is high. Virtual reality immerses the students in the learning and increases engagement and immersion and presence help conceptual change. Students are able to have deeper learning through active discovering through immersion in the environment (Winn, 2003).

Presence in virtual reality is defined as a measure of the soundness of sensory cues that give a sense of physical presence or direct experience (Whitelock, Brna & Holland, 1996). This is further broken down into the degree to which the technology delivers realistic renderings, colours, textures, motion etc, the extent to which the environment that is simulated is familiar to the user and as “real” to life control over this environment (Whitelock, Brna & Holland, 1996). When virtual reality meets these criteria students show improved understanding of concepts. That being said, virtual reality can also exacerbate previous misconceptions or even build new misconceptions.  An example is seen in the example of Virtual Puget Sound. In this virtual reality the concept that water speeds up when moving through narrow channels was misunderstood by a student who thought that longer arrows in narrow channels showed that they were more clogged (Winn, 2003). The concepts laid out in virtual reality environments may not be intuitive to new learners or learners with previous little experience or understanding of the phenomenon.

Questions I wonder about…and hope you may shed some light on….

How can we mitigate scientific misunderstandings that may be fostered through virtual reality that has not been effectively designed?

How are we assessing understandings and concepts learned in virtual environments? Are we checking in to ensure students are correct in there scientific understandings throughout the virtual reality process or are we expecting the technology to lead them down the “right path” without effective facilitation?

Should virtual reality be field tested to ensure that the design is optimal or is this dependent on too many outside factors out of the designers’ control? (Age of students, previously held scientific beliefs, educators’ understandings and useage of the technology, etc.)

Whitelock, D, Brna, P., Holland, S (1996). What is the value of virtual reality for conceptual learning? Towards a theoretical framework. CITE REPORT. Retrieved from

Winn, W. (2003). Learning in artificial environments: Embodiment, embeddedness, and dynamic adaptation. Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning, 1(1), 87-114. Full-text document retrieved on January 17, 2013, from:



  1. How can we mitigate scientific misunderstandings that may be fostered through virtual reality that has not been effectively designed?

    Great question! AS with all digital technologies, they have the potential to contribute to student misconceptions in learning concepts. Even internet searches can give students false information. Regardless of the technologies, it is important to foster students’ critical thinking in everything they read or are exposed to in the digital environment. More specifically, students should be digital literates in the sense that they can determine the validity and reliability of information and that they form skepticism of information that does not appear to be accurate to them.

    1. Gloria,
      I think you hit the nail on the head, instilling critical thinking in students is becoming increasingly important. Students need to be able to distinguish and judge for themselves what is legitimate from what isn’t. We need to make sure that as educators we are teaching students to question what they read and not just take things at face value. To search information from multiple sources, as well as to question these sources.

    2. I agree with students becoming critical thinkers but I wonder if educators are taking the time to vet virtual reality design to find possible flaws or if educators are trusting in the designers and exposing students to information that may foster further scientific misunderstandings. Not all educators are scientists or have a firm background in science and so I wonder if these educators would even know what information may be misleading in regards to teaching science concepts through Virtual Reality. I also wonder if students would apply critical thinking skills in a virtual reality situation. I wonder if the engagement in the technology may trump critical thinking. Just some thoughts I have.

  2. Thank you Michelle for introducing this article on the role of VR in conceptual understanding to our discussion.

    As VR becomes more wide-spread (c.f. Virtual Reality Youtube), the implications for the development of alternative conceptions are prescient for educators. I agree with your idea of field testing the VR first for its use for a particular topic. Gloria’s response is also a sound one and promoting Posner’s 4 conditions might also be utilized within a VR context: Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A. , Hewson, P. W. , Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education 66(2), 211-227.

    Best wishes, Samia

    1. Thank you for your thoughts Samia. One thing I am still pondering is conceptual change. I refer to the idea that anomalies provide cognitive conflict which allows students to become dissatisfied with currently held concepts and allows them to accommodate new ones. (Posner, Strike, Heson & Gertzog, 1982). I wonder if cognitive conflict depends on the intrinsic interest of the subject or concept being studied. I also wonder about when cognitive conflict occurs. At this time will a student begin to become interested in a concept that they may not have been very interested in previous to the conflict? What I mean is that I wonder if interest in the concept is a precursor to cognitive conflict?
      I also reflected on the teaching strategies which can help foster conceptual change including creating cognitive conflict in students, diagnosing errors in student thinking, representing content in multiple modes and tracking conceptual change (Posner,, 1982). Research shows that one reason conceptual change is difficult is because students lack awareness of their misunderstandings (Chi & Roscoe, 2002). So wouldn’t an integral step be for the educator to spend more time on identifying misunderstandings so that the students can then be directed to appropriate concept building, for example in a TELE? If this is the case, the curriculum load for science courses should be streamlined so that more time is spent on core understandings. In effect, the most important part of this process is helping students identify how they are thinking and show them ways to move towards metacognition or “thinking about their thinking”. This is a very timely endeavor and requires educators to perhaps embrace big changes in their philosophy of teaching.

      Chi, M. T. H., & Roscoe, R. D. (2002). The processes and challenges of conceptual change. In M. Limon and L. Mason (Eds.), Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice (pp. 3-27). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

      Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education 66 (2), 211-227.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *