Gender Differences in Learning Molecular Biology Using Virtual Learning Environments
In another project of ours, an experimental study quantified the effects of using an immersive three-dimensional virtual reality to visualise molecular biology phenomenon. Results indicated significant increases in attitudes and behaviours towards molecular biology in all participants. However, major improvement in achievement in molecular biology was observed only in male students, while marginal improvements in achievement by female students were not significant. The gap in achievement between genders, despite similar improvements in motivation, suggests that the male and female students imbibe and process information differently. Forty-six participants were thus followed up with qualitative interviews to gain insights into how male and female students learn molecular biology. Qualitative surveys suggest that, prior to exposure to virtual reality-based visualisations, both male and female students relied heavily on rote memorisation to do well in tests. This tendency dissipated in male students as they moved towards, perhaps as a result of the virtual reality simulations appealing to their preferences for a “bigger picture”, helping them make connections between different structures and processes to enhance understanding. However, female students continued to rely on memorising the prescribed syllabus to help themselves in examinations. It seems that their tendency for the written word, and to work reflectively predisposes them towards memorisation as a learning strategy. Examination of learning behaviours using the VARK framework shows that most male students prefer learning by multiple modalities while female students exhibited an overwhelming preference for reading and writing. The VARK findings were congruent with male and female learning behaviours tracked by the Learning Styles Index, where males were sensory, visual and verbal in acquiring information and active in their learning and global in their learning perspectives. Conversely, females tended to be intuitive, and reflective in learning, preferring sequential information dissemination. Because lessons using virtual reality simulations also involve questioning, discussion and model construction, these activities clearly catered to the preferences of male students. One of the original objectives of the virtual reality simulations was to show students the interconnectedness of sub-cellular processes and structures; the information presented was not sequential, but served to demonstrate the synergism in different parts of the cell. This global perspective would again appeal more to the learning preferences of male students. While female students may find such activities refreshing—hence driving motivation and engagement scores—these contributed little to their actual learning. Therefore, more efforts are needed to help female students on learning structure information and making connections across different topics in molecular biology. More broadly, the technology used in mixed gender classrooms and differentiated instruction programmes need to be carefully considered.
KeywordsVirtual reality Molecular biology Learning behaviours Gender differences
The author would like to thank the National Research Foundation, Singapore, and the Ministry of Education, Singapore, for supporting this study.
This work would not have been possible without the support of many friends and colleagues at Hwa Chong Institution, and Nanyang Girls High School, Singapore. Special thanks also go to Professor Y. Y. Cai from NTU, and Mr. Ngo Boon Keong from Zepth Pte Ltd.
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