Virtual reality can improve student mastery of difficult medical concepts when VR is strategically incorporated into case-based teaching, according to new research by an academic team at Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Teaching Associate Professor Roberto Galvez and a team of Carle Illinois faculty members set out to study the value of VR as a tool to improve medical student learning. “Everyone in higher education is talking about using VR for educational activities because it is the shiny new toy, but people are realizing that without clear direction, the VR activities are not achieving the desired educational goals. At the end of the day, our goal is to educate the next generation of physicians.”

The team’s study “Use of Virtual Reality to Educate Undergraduate Medical Students on Cardiac Peripheral and Collateral Circulation,” was recently published in the journal Medical Science Educator. It describes development of a novel case-based clinical vignette that they successfully piloted with students in Carle Illinois’ cardiology course. The group’s findings indicate that, when used correctly, VR is a valuable tool to increase student learning. The study also provides a framework for other educators to develop VR-based learning activities that are engaging and effective in teaching certain material.

Galvez and his colleagues targeted concepts that are difficult for students to visualize. Specifically, they designed an activity to teach peripheral circulation and collateral circulation — the alternative routes that develop when normal blood flow is constricted. “These hard-to-conceptualize features of human anatomy are difficult to teach using more traditional methods such as anatomical drawings or cadavers,” said Galvez. The team theorized that VR’s capabilities could boost students’ understanding of physiological differences that affect circulation.

Student teams had few problems navigating the VR-based clinical vignette, with robust guidance from instructors. The results were striking. Students scored well above the national average on post-activity quizzes (96% correct in Carle Illinois’ VR pilot compared with 75% nationally). Most students also rated the lesson as engaging and effective in helping them grasp concepts.

This research could lead to more targeted use of VR in teaching difficult topics in other courses. “There are concepts in every body system that are difficult to understand and could benefit from a similar VR activity,” Galvez said. “I would love to see this mode of teaching utilized in medical education to provide a better understanding of these concepts.” He also hopes other educators can tap into Carle Illinois’ framework for developing effective VR activities.

The Carle Illinois team’s research, “Use of Virtual Reality to Educate Undergraduate Medical Students on Cardiac Peripheral and Collateral Circulation,” can be found online here.

Other team include the following Carle Illinois faculty members: Teaching Associate Professors Robert Wallon and Jenny Amos, Associate Professor Laura Shackelford, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Dr. Judith Rowen.

Carle Illinois’ unique medical education curriculum uses a case-based, active-learning approach, with an emphasis on technological innovation to advance medicine.