Middle School Math Gets a Boost from Virtual Reality  

Middle school math students struggling to catch up with their peers benefited significantly from tutoring via virtual reality according to new research by SMU math education pioneer Candace Walkington. The first researcher to develop and analyze VR tutoring, Walkington found the strategy offered students the benefits of face-to-face tutoring in addition to virtual immersion into the world of math.

Walkington, professor of teaching and learning at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, presented her research recently at the American Educational Research Association meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To conduct the study, Walkington and her team recruited 38 seventh- and eighth-graders from after-school programs at two Dallas urban schools. Ten miles away on the SMU campus, SMU undergraduate student tutors met their students remotely as avatars in a virtual math classroom where student avatars could stretch, condense, and even crawl inside the prisms, pyramids and other geometric shapes they were studying.

“VR is this very immersive environment where things happen that can’t happen in the real world,” Walkington says. “You can have a cube floating in the air in front of you and there’s no gravity to make it fall to the ground.”

Students are drawn to the playful aspects of VR tutoring, Walkington says, but research shows they also benefit from embodied learning, or the movement the technology enables that illustrates mathematical concepts, she says.

“When we move we do mathematics,” she says. “Students intuitively understand math in a spatial and embodied way. They will spontaneously use gestures and movements to explore concepts.”

It’s important to note that the study also exposed some limitations to VR tutoring. Despite upgrades to school Internet connections, students and remote tutors regularly experienced connection problems while working in the virtual world.  It also took time for students to learn to use the VR headset and goggles, creating delays.

According to a recent study conducted by Harvard and Stanford, students in the U.S. have made up about a third of COVID math learning loss, but the $122 million federal aid education package to support tutoring and summer school for those with COVID learning loss expires in September 2024.

“As technology continues to advance, we believe VR tutoring will become commonplace, given its strengths of embodied learning, dynamic interaction and collaboration,” she says.

Walkington’s research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Co-authors of her paper include Max Sherard, Prajakt Pande, LeaAnne Daughrity and Anthony Cuevas.




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