BACKGROUND: Complex tasks such as surgical procedures can induce excessive cognitive load (CL), which can have a negative effect on learning, especially for novices.
AIM: To investigate if repeated and distributed virtual reality (VR) simulation practice induces a lower CL and higher performance in subsequent cadaveric dissection training.
METHODS: In a prospective, controlled cohort study, 37 residents in otorhinolaryngology received VR simulation training either as additional distributed practice prior to course participation (intervention) (9 participants) or as standard practice during the course (control) (28 participants). Cognitive load was estimated as the relative change in secondary-task reaction time during VR simulation and cadaveric procedures.
RESULTS: Structured distributed VR simulation practice resulted in lower mean reaction times (32% vs. 47% for the intervention and control group, respectively, p < 0.01) as well as a superior final-product performance during subsequent cadaveric dissection training.
CONCLUSIONS: Repeated and distributed VR simulation causes a lower CL to be induced when the learning situation is increased in complexity. A suggested mechanism is the formation of mental schemas and reduction of the intrinsic CL. This has potential implications for surgical skills training and suggests that structured, distributed training be systematically implemented in surgical training curricula.