Increasing understanding of complex biological concepts
: haptic learning in a collaborative, 3D environment

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Cell biology is known to be a difficult subject due to its abstract and complex nature. Although concepts of cell biology are integral to the understanding of biology overall, misconceptions in cell biology have been identified across all levels of education. Haptic technology (which enables sensing and manipulating through touch) may offer a method of increasing understanding in complex, abstract and unobservable concepts such as those found in cell biology. The potential beneficial effects of haptics in learning complex biological concepts is supported by Dual Coding Theory (Paivio, 1969), Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1994) and Embodied Cognition (Barsalou, 2008). The development and use of haptic systems in the medical field however has identified fine dexterity and spatial ability as factors that may influence the ability of students to interact with and learn from haptic systems (Shahriari-Rad, 2014). However, spatial ability and fine dexterity have not yet been examined in the use of haptics in the learning of complex biological concepts. This study used mixed methods research to determine whether haptic feedback has a beneficial effect on learning concepts of cell biology, whether fine dexterity or spatial ability has an impact on the ability of students to learn from haptic VR systems and discover which features of haptic interventions may support or not support learning in this topic.

A collaborative, 3D virtual reality (VR) learning environment capable of providing haptic feedback was developed allowing students to explore, interact and test hypotheses to further their understanding of cell biology. Sixty-four 12-13-year-old students were allocated to haptic (touch feedback enabled) and non-haptic (touch feedback disabled) conditions. Students worked in pairs to complete tasks designed to facilitate collaborative exploration of a 3D VR model of a cell membrane. This study was the first to compare haptic and non-haptic learning in science with a multi-fingered haptic device, which provided a more intuitive method of manipulation than previous haptic alternatives. Learning gains were measured using a test of cell knowledge administered before, immediately after and 8 months after the activity to determine the effect of haptic feedback on learning. Fine dexterity and spatial ability were also measured to explore any effects of these variables in how students learned from the intervention. Thematic analysis of student interviews was also conducted to gain insight into which features of haptic interventions may support or not support students’ learning in this topic.

It was found that students increased their knowledge significantly after the intervention and retained that knowledge for 8 months. Thematic analysis of the interviews identified several key themes suggesting that students enjoyed using the system and expressed a preference for interaction and collaboration in their learning. Students perceived increased understanding of the topic and predicted that they would retain their knowledge, which was consistent with the quantitative results. However, there were no significant differences in knowledge gain between haptic and non-haptic conditions. The thematic analysis identified possible sources of excess cognitive load and indicators of visual dominance which may have affected the influence of haptic feedback on learning in this study. Potential sources of excess extraneous cognitive load include the novelty of the system and difficulties grasping within the model, which have the potential to overload working memory and consequently negate beneficial effects provided by the haptic sense. Evidence for the effects of visual dominance were found, suggesting that the prominence of visual information is a detrimental factor in the use of haptic models. Spatial ability and ‘tweezer’ fine dexterity were not found to significantly affect how students learned from the intervention. However, it was found that those with lower ‘finger’ fine dexterity retained more of their knowledge in the long term. Finger fine dexterity is a factor which had not been previously explored in the use of haptic interventions for cell biology, but findings of this study indicate that further research is required to explore how dexterity may affect how students interact with models using multi-finger haptic systems.

This study is unique in its evaluation of a multi-fingered haptic device for the learning of cell biology and investigation into the effects of spatial ability and fine dexterity on how students learn from haptic systems in this topic. The findings of this study indicate that effects of extraneous cognitive load, visual dominance and fine dexterity must be addressed to determine optimal conditions for the use of haptic feedback in the learning of complex biological concepts.
Date of Award1 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMary Webb (Supervisor) & Christine Harrison (Supervisor)

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