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Learning Abstract Concepts with XR

by | Nov 19, 2020

Abstract thinking is a crucial skill for students to master, and yet traditional teaching methods often struggle to convey concepts that cannot be experienced directly. But what if, instead of learning abstract concepts through formulas or models, students could actually experience them? By integrating extended reality technologies into the classroom, students could interact with abstract concepts in a new and meaningful way. 

Functions of the body could be learned through a virtual exploration of the human body and its cells, electromagnetism could be learned by directly manipulating electric charges and even philosophical thought experiments and ethical dilemmas could be explored through virtual simulations.

What is abstract thinking?

Abstract thinking encompasses the understanding of non-physical concepts that cannot be experienced perceptually. This includes logical thinking but also creative thinking, problem-solving, understanding metaphors and theories, or putting things into perspective [1]. This lack of concrete experiences is what makes it challenging for students to fully grasp and apply abstract concepts, and also for educators to evaluate students.

What is needed in order to successfully convey abstract concepts are modes of teaching that make abstract problems more tangible. In many cases, the abstract aspect of learning arises through the lack of direct knowledge experience. This can happen for example, when students are learning about things that are too small (e.g. the composition of a cell or the structure of DNA) or too big (e.g. solar system) to experience or interact with. In other cases, abstract concepts cannot be experienced at all (e.g. electromagnetism). 

XR and constructivist learning

With an approach of applied knowledge, XR gives students the opportunity to construct their own understanding of concepts. Virtual environments can for example ask students to create their own model of the solar system and thereby consolidate their theoretical knowledge [2]. Learners are moving from a passive mode of receiving knowledge to an active mode of constructing their own understanding through interactions. Such a learning approach is also known as constructivist learning, a theory that argues that we create our own understanding of the world through our own experiences [3]. It also argues that learning is a process that is tied to our previous knowledge and that new information needs to be processed in a meaningful way.

Experiencing abstract concepts

Traditional approaches to teaching abstract concepts, such as using visualisations, videos, or schemas, can often successfully convey information to students. However, many students still struggle to grasp these concepts and therefore more concrete methods are necessary. The crucial step that extended reality allows learners to take, is to not merely engage in three-dimensionsional visualisations, but to directly manipulate and interact with what they are learning. While a 3D space can help with gaining a deeper spatial understanding, the interactive aspects of XR creates opportunities for concrete experiences of concepts that could otherwise not be experienced. 

One such example can be found in the Electrostatic Playground, where students can learn about electromagnetism by manipulating electric charges and receive immediate feedback on their actions [4].

Electrostatic Playground allows students to learn through exploration and experimentation

Collaborating in virtual environments

Abstract concepts can be made concrete and experienceable in XR. However, students also need to be able to generalise the concrete examples they are learning into abstractions, in order to apply their knowledge in other scenarios [5]. To achieve this, students need to be exposed to multiple representations of the concept and experience as many interactive instances of learning as possible.

Cellverse is a project developed by MIT that intends to teach cell biology through a collaborative game [6]. The aim of the game is to diagnose and treat a diseased cell. While one player experiences the inside of the cell through VR, the other student uses a tablet to get a microscope view and has access to information about the cell and possible diseases.This learning experience allows students to not only get a concrete experience of cell functions through VR but also create a general more abstract understanding through the tablet view.

Students collaborating in Cellverse (

Cellverse’s Navigator view of microscope highlighting mitochondria (left), possible diseases

VR view of Cellverse: Moving through a translocation channel (left, center), intermediate filaments near the nucleus (right).

Tackling ethical dilemmas

Virtual and augmented reality can also be used to give learners a concrete insight into philosophical thought experiments that require learners to be able to imagine elaborate, complex and often highly unlikely scenarios. Such thought experiments could essentially be understood as simulations inside of our minds and therefore lend themselves to be translated into virtual simulations.

Making ethical decisions in virtual reality

By creating scenarios, such as the trolley problem, inside of a virtual environment, it becomes possible to give more sensory feedback to the learners and make the experience more realistic. Ethical dilemmas have already been explored in VR and researchers have found that the more participants were actively engaged in certain activities (such as pushing a person in front of the trolley to save others) and the more sensory stimuli they received, the less likely they were to actually interfere [7]. Such research can reveal significant insight about human decision making and help to make ethical choices [8].


The above-mentioned examples demonstrate the unique educational value of XR. Virtual learning environments are not merely a means to create more lively and engaging visualisations and experiences but they add a rich interactive layer to learning, in particular when it comes to topics and methods that are less concrete and require abstract thinking.



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This collection is curated by the XR ERA team. The network around XR ERA contributes their insights to the platform. These articles range from philosophical questions to practical applications. We invite you to share your own insights with us!

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