The purpose of this study was to explore the effects of learning mode and metaphor on comprehension of a genomic concept using a virtual reality platform. We developed and tested four virtual worlds designed to convey to lay audiences the concept that gene-environment interactions affect common disease risk. We selected two metaphors, a risk elevator and a bridge, and developed both an active learning and didactic learning virtual world for each metaphor. The results indicated that the elevator metaphor better conveyed the genomic concept of interest to participants than the bridge metaphor. Both measures of comprehension (recall and transfer) were higher for the elevator metaphor worlds, and this difference was significant for mean transfer score. In addition, most of the variables we examined due to their theoretical relationship with more effective learning (e.g., elaboration, attention, motivation) had higher mean ratings for the elevator metaphor than the bridge metaphor worlds, although these differences were not significant. More participants preferred the elevator metaphor than the bridge metaphor.
We decided to empirically test different metaphors because there is little guidance in the literature to direct metaphor design for abstract scientific concepts (Winn, 1999
). The metaphors tested here differed on a number of dimensions. The risk elevator was a simpler, more straightforward metaphor based on a common health communication graphic. We propose that this metaphor might be more consistent with how lay individuals conceptualize changes in risk (i.e., increase in risk is reflected by upward movement of elevator) or with other risk visuals they might have seen, leading to greater improvement in comprehension. The bridge was a more complex metaphor. The finding that elaboration ratings were somewhat higher for the bridge metaphor than the elevator metaphor worlds suggests that participants were thinking somewhat more deeply about the bridge metaphor. The many pieces of the bridge metaphor to which participants could attend may have distracted from learning of the overall concept, however, as also suggested by the somewhat higher difficulty ratings for the bridge metaphor worlds. This metaphor, with its horizontal rather than vertical orientation, might also have been inconsistent with how lay individuals conceptualize changes in risk. These findings therefore suggest that less complex metaphors that are consistent with how lay individuals conceptualize abstract concepts might convey these ideas more effectively. Next steps for this line of research could include comparing other metaphors that are grounded in risk communication theory to investigate systematically characteristics that affect learning and using formative research to better map tested metaphors onto how lay individuals conceptualize the concept of disease risk.
Another intriguing study finding was that comprehension was significantly higher for didactic learning than active learning. Previous research had generally suggested that active learning would better improve comprehension (e.g., Dede, Salzman, Loftin, & Ash, 1997
). Some educational research, however, has not supported the superiority of active learning compared to didactic learning (Sigler & Saam, 2007
). Our findings provide some support to the proposition that while active learning might be better for application, didactic learning might be better for increasing knowledge (Ormrod, 2005
; Sigler & Saam, 2007
). The better learning we observed with the didactic approach might also be an effect of the undergraduate population who participated in the study, since they are in a university setting that is heavily lecture-based. Future research is needed to examine the effects of learning mode on comprehension in community-based samples.
We also observed that for most of the variables theoretically related to more effective learning, ratings for the active learning worlds were higher than for the didactic learning worlds. This finding is consistent with prior research showing that students felt they learned more from active learning approaches (de Caprariis, Barman, & Magee, 2001
). Additional research with larger samples is needed, however, to test formally possible mechanisms mediating the association between learning mode and comprehension. Future studies based on other virtual worlds could also explore the effect of learning mode on educational approaches designed to teach skills (e.g., using disease risk numbers) rather than to increase conceptual knowledge. It may be the case, for example, that active learning is more effective for skill building than didactic learning through mechanisms suggested by the SCT, such as increasing self efficacy.
The limitations of this study should be considered in interpreting the results. We had a small sample size for this exploratory study, which limited our power to examine the statistical significance of observed differences. As mentioned above, all participants were undergraduate students, which may have had an effect on learning outcomes. Participants might also have had greater familiarity with interactive gaming and use of technology for learning, although this possibility was not supported by the finding of greater effectiveness of didactic learning. The measures were self-reported, and therefore subjective. Reliability was less than optimal for our measures of elaboration and perceived difficulty, although an examination of ratings for the individual items from these measures did not change the interpretation. Involvement items had only three-point response scales, which might have limited our ability to detect changes in this construct. Further measures development will be important for this line of research, including developing objective measures for constructs such as attention and elaboration and, perhaps, using measures for the secondary dependent variables with more items. Additional research will also be needed to determine whether the effects observed here using virtual reality technology as an experimental platform will also hold true for real-world educational approaches that are more disseminable.
Despite these limitations, the results indicated that the elevator metaphor better supported learning of the gene-environment interaction concept than the bridge metaphor. These findings suggest that message designers should select less complex metaphors that are consistent with how the target audience conceptualizes an abstract concept. The results also indicate that active learning might not be more effective than didactic learning in some health education contexts, highlighting the importance of pre-testing educational strategies. Future research should examine which of these variables (learning mode or metaphor) is more important in increasing comprehension, or whether these variables interact in their effects.
In conclusion, limited genetic conceptual knowledge is likely to interfere with individuals’ understanding of messages about genetic risk, and limited guidance exists for the development of strategies to educate the lay public about genomic concepts. Future research can build upon these results to gain a better understanding of which learning mode is most effective in conveying information about abstract, genomic concepts to different populations, as well as the mechanisms by which this learning occurs. Development and evaluation of effective strategies to improve genetic literacy is critical in order to translate research advances in genomics into improvements in public health.