Dr. Lindsay Portnoy
8 min readApr 24, 2017


Metrics that Matter: How to use VR to transform classroom learning

Imagine a school where students work with city planners to develop a new playground during first period, build a working lawn mower to care for the grounds in second period, create life-sized sculptures to exhibit in their space during third period, and by fourth period they’re synthesizing biodiesel to fuel the lawn mowers that care for their grounds.

Does this sound like a dream school? It may be reality sooner than you think. With the proliferation of games for learning, virtual reality has the potential to transport children to places out of reach for most students. Students can visit a lab where peptides are synthesized to make palliative treatments for cancer patients, an underwater dive to see the giant sea turtles in the Galapagos, or even visit one of Jupiter’s moons.

There are at least four ways VR can change learning and each will be even more profound when paired with tools to help teachers observe, document, and provide feedback while continuing to engage and enlighten students. The creation of these tools requires an understanding of how student learning becomes more complex over time, how to measure what matters, how to align those metrics to the many ways in which students demonstrate their knowledge, and most importantly to identify what tools teachers see as valuable to improve and inform their instruction.

How Students Learn

Researchers have shown time and again that learning is dictated by content, not individual ability, rendering the term learning style defunct. Students learn through a variety of modes including visual, auditory, kinesthetic and over seventy more!

Would you prefer a cardiothoracic surgeon who fashions herself strictly a visual learner and reads widely about open-heart surgeries, or perhaps you’d prefer the person who has listened thoroughly, read widely, and logged thousands of hours in lab perfecting her technique?

Just as experts hone their craft using a variety of modalities, students acquire knowledge in a multitude of ways. A student can demonstrate learning kinesthetically by creating a physical model or verbally by defending their position in a debate. Depending on the domain it may be more relevant to have a student write a response to an opinion piece or to create a piece of music. Herein lies yet another way that virtual environments can activate the senses, engage multiple modalities, and bring depth and breadth to classroom learning.

Measuring Learning to Improve Instruction

Measuring learning serves one purpose: to inform teaching and learning. It is not the teacher’s goal to stamp a letter on each child’s head and place them back on the assembly line for next year’s teacher. The science behind the best methods of formative assessment relies upon cognitive taxonomies. These taxonomies map learning as a progression from simple to complex demonstrations of knowledge and are used by educators to delineate student learning.

Webb’s is the most widely used taxonomy for demonstrating knowledge across a variety of domains across four successive levels of knowing: acquisition, application, analysis, and augmentation of knowledge. As students move from one level to the next, they are tasked with showing their knowledge in increasingly complex ways. For example, the acquisition level (DOK 1) requires simple recall of knowledge such as naming the three branches of government, whereas the augmentation level (DOK 4) pushes the student to apply acquired knowledge in a novel or distinct way such as analyzing the ways in which the United States government was created based on ancient Greece.

In virtual reality environments we can scaffold a student’s demonstration of knowledge by providing tools to increase engagement while providing metrics to show growth along a learning progression. These environments show student’s actions and interactions with content making their knowledge visible and ripe for the qualitatively rich metrics that measure growth and development.

Pairing Measurement with Authentic Learning in VR Environments

Let’s break down each level of learning in Webb’s taxonomy and see how VR has the potential to improve learning and provide meaningful feedback on that learning to inform instruction. Taken point by point here’s why:

1: Acquisition and the Ability to Touch

In physical reality students can sort items in an array, identify the atoms of a molecules, or simply select a book off the shelf that will help them finish their book report. These human experiences embedded in virtual reality will allow users to touch items in a virtual world in an effort to demonstrating knowledge acquisition (DOK 1).

Exploring in a virtual world may find students sort the same array or identify those same molecules, but they can also seek out definitions to secure basic content knowledge by selecting items in a virtual world even with the most rudimentary of VR viewers. Titans of Space is one experience where students take a tour of the planets in our solar system and learn basic facts about things like the rings of Saturn and nearby stars. A student’s selection of items can be provided to teachers as feedback to show just which components they were most engaged in learning about and serves as a launching point from which to extend learning to deeper levels of inquiry like DOK 2.

2: Application and the Capacity to Manipulate

The application level or DOK 2 requires students to process information through actions such as summarizing or predicting where learners manipulate simple knowledge to demonstrate how they have reorganized content into meaningful knowledge. In a physical space this often looks like the summary of a story, the creation of a diorama, or performing a piece based on a reading.

In virtual worlds these same skills can be demonstrated but with greater detail and with the capacity to document anf therefore better capture and honor each movement. For example, a student who uses the tilt brush to retell a story with drawings or creates their own diorama in VR using CoSpaces leaves an image forever secured in space, which can be toured by other students and the teacher. What’s more it provides useful feedback about how the student applied information (DOK 2) from discrete facts (DOK 1) while generating feedback to the teacher to move beyond application (DOK 2) and into the realm of higher order thinking and problem solving apparent in DOK 3.

3: Analysis and the Tools to Create

The third level of Webb’s taxonomy is Analysis, which speaks to the student’s ability to go beyond the surface of understanding and processing information towards evaluating perspectives, investigating alternative sources of information, and solving problems. In a classroom this often looks like drawing conclusions from observations in science, questioning primary and secondary sources in history, or using different theorems to solve an equation in math.

Virtual spaces provide student’s with a template to create materials that support their ideas. Consider a high school trigonometry class where students learn about sine, cosine, and tangent. They’ve mastered DOK 1 and 2 by identifying and recalling each term but in DOK 3 they need to demonstrate their ability to solve problems using these functions. A student could demonstrate this knowledge by solving problems in a virtual world where the height of trees dictates where they should be placed in a community garden or in proximity to a school building. This is similar to the real work of architects embracing VR who are working to create more authentic representations of their projects, bridging the virtual and physical world while setting the stage for knowledge to move from analysis (DOK 3) to augmentation (DOK 4).

4: Augmentation of Knowledge and the Potential to Change

Augmentation (DOK 4) encompasses the cognitive abilities of each of the levels that come before. A student must be able to solve a problem using sine in DOK 3 which also includes their ability to define sine (DOK 2) and recognize it as a function in trigonometry (DOK 1). The final level of augmentation (DOK 4) requires students to have embraced levels one through three while adding on the cognitive complexity of formulating strategies to solve new problems, restructuring of data, or generating novel hypotheses. DOK 4 requires students to synthesize their knowledge in a way that allows them to solve problems that don’t always have easy solutions.

In a physical setting students may read primary and secondary sources in a history class around causes of the American Civil War ranging from issues of slavery, the state’s rights and even Lincoln’s election. After reading multiple sources, discussing, and debating, students propose a well-reasoned explanation for the war citing sources and providing evidence to support their assertion. In virtual worlds this exercise can take place through the exploration of multiple immersive learning experiences like My Brother’s Keeper or Urban Warfare with the added bonus of activating embodied cognition, cultivating empathy, and providing additional layers of understanding from traditional texts.

Documenting Growth While Empowering Educators

Students learn best when they have a knowledgeable guide, access to requisite tools for acquiring knowledge, and when their teachers are given the autonomy to observe, document, and collect feedback to inform their teaching. By understanding the range of cognitive skills students demonstrate while learning, VR experiences can provide that feedback in real time during each immersive experience to fuel repeated engagement and qualitatively rich information to guide instruction. To do this well we must continue to ask important questions about the user’s experience as we develop immersive learning experiences. For instance, how will environments allow students to move, manipulate, and create representations of their learning? And how will developers provide teachers with a template to connect immersive experiences in virtual worlds to the synthesis of knowledge in the physical world through reading, writing, and presenting student work?

Teachers are master storytellers who craft engaging lessons and tailor assessments that drive future instruction each and every day. If VR developers want to harness the power of their technology to boost learning and provide meaningful feedback they will need to work closely with professional educators. Together we can create tools to best support student growth and learning by considering: What are the most intuitive ways to build interactions within an immersive experience? How will you measure these interactions? Which level of cognition is enacted in each action? What is the best way to deliver formative assessment to teachers to best inform their instruction? Where will you provide scaffolds to deepen learning or support struggling students during these experiences?

The important takeaway is that these tools have not yet been created so the field is ripe for innovation in developing metrics that matter most to teachers to fuel learning. Together we can create immersive experiences that are rich in formative assessments to support teachers while captivating students to ensure that they continue to learn, grow, and keep coming back for more.


Lindsay Portnoy is co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Killer Snails, a gaming company that uses extreme creatures of nature to build immersive and engaging learning experiences aligned to meaningful assessments that support educators.

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Dr. Lindsay Portnoy

Intellectually curious. I follow my ideas. Cognitive scientist, author, educator, activist.