Learning in Virtual Reality: Phases of the Moon

Virtual Reality as a Teaching Tool for Moon Phases and Beyond
J.H. Madden, A. S. Won, J. P. Schuldt, B. Kim, S. Pandita, Y. Sun, T. J. Stone, and N. G. Holmes
Cornell University

Virtual reality (VR) experiences are increasingly being used not only for casual gaming, but also training
and rehabilitation, particularly in medicine and the military. Some say learning in an immersive virtual
world is the future of education. Others are skeptical, wondering about the measurable value in VR-
based learning. Dr. Holmes’ research group at the Cornell Physics Education Research Lab studies
introductory-level physics labs. A recent publication by J. H. Madden from her group investigates the
benefits of using VR to teach about the phases of the Moon.

Each student began with a pre-test, then was sent along one of three different paths. One third of the
students worked with a physical model of the Moon, using a flashlight and moon-on-a-stick. The second
set of students used a computer-based model of the Sun and Moon, and were able to observe from
above or from in the planets’ plane of motion. The last set of students used an immersive VR model
delivered through a head-mounted virtual reality headset. Here they could observe the Sun, Earth, and
Moon from different angles, as for the desktop-computer model. After completing their assigned
learning experience, students wrote a post-test and then explored the other two experiences.

The student outcomes showed no significant differences between paths; their scores improved from
36% to 58% in each case. However, there was a strong preference (78%) for the VR experience over the
desktop-computer model and the physical model, regardless of which the students had initially learned
from. Students said they liked the different perspectives, the control over the system, and the feeling of
engagement that were associated with the VR experience. The students who preferred other systems
cited trouble with the sensory input or the controls.

The authors conclude that there was no measured improvement in the students’ understanding.
However, they point out that the VR experience offered gains in student engagement at no cost to
student learning outcomes. This increase in student engagement and motivation is consistent with
other literature (Makransky and Lilleholt, 2018; Parong and Mayer, 2018), who further suggest that VR-
based activities can be incorporated into larger learning strategies, which might reduce the cognitive
load associated with VR environments and thus translate this improved motivation into better learning

Similar work is being done and collaborated on at the University of Alberta in Rehab Medicine,
Biochemistry, and Business applications by the Cognitive Projections AR/VR lab, at

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