Time to Roll Up Your Sleeves!
Have you ever taken an online college course? Distance learning classes let you have the freedom you crave in college. With this incredible system, gone are the days of rushing through lecture halls to make it to class on time. With a simple click, you can connect with bright minds from all over the world, no passport needed.
While this all sounds appealing, researchers show that attending classes in person has benefits that might outweigh the short-term pleasures (e.g., learning from anywhere) associated with online learning – at least for science classes…
Spinning wheels in physics
In their experiments, Carly Kontra, PhD and colleagues from The University of Chicago and DePaul University sought to explore how physical experience influences learning in college-level physics classes. They recruited students who had never been exposed to physics in college to find out whether physically experiencing properties of angular momentum leads to enhanced understanding of it.
Initially, subjects read a description of angular momentum then completed a pretest about certain properties of it. During this phase of the study, students also watched a video that displayed two avatars holding bicycle wheels on an axle, tilting the axle both horizontally and vertically.
For the actual study, students got assigned to either the action group or the observation group. In the action group, students actually tilted a set of wheels just like in the video while those in the observation group were told to simply observe the action of the wheels. The group that got to spin the wheels performed significantly better at posttest (about 10%) after controlling for pretest performance. Furthermore, they also did better on vector-dependent trials but not on magnitude-dependent trials. As a result, researchers suggest that students in the action group learned about the vector nature of angular momentum a lot better compared to those in the observation group.
In a follow up study, Kontra and colleagues used fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to investigate what regions of the brain get activated in experiential learning. The results revealed that activation in the left primary motor/somatosensory cortex accounted for the influence of training on quiz performance. In other words, physically experiencing angular momentum helped students give more accurate results on the quiz. According to the investigators, ”Action experience (relative to observation) leads to increased activation of sensorimotor systems important for representing dynamic physical concepts.”
The take-home message
Whether you are studying online or offline, you still need to do your homework and pass your exams. However, as Dr. Kontra and her team’s experiments suggest, physically experiencing motion-related concepts in science classes is immensely important for accurately learning the material at hand.
- 1. Kontra, C., Lyons, J. D., Fischer, M. S., & Beilock, L. S. (2015). Physical experience enhances science learning. Psychological Science, 1-13. DOI:10.1177/0956797615569355