We recently attended an outdoor concert at a park in our town. A local animal rescue group had set up a booth on the edge of the park, and many concert-goers were drawn to the winsome dogs and cats who needed good homes. The volunteers from the shelter were only too happy to let folks cuddle the pets or take them for a walk. As I paid a visit to a particularly charming blue heeler pup, one of our friends warned my husband, “Watch out…she’s petting it. You may be getting another dog tonight.” We didn’t, but it was a close call.
The animal rescue volunteers knew what clever salesmen have known for centuries: when we make a physical connection with a product, we are more like likely to make a purchase. That’s why we’re encouraged to slip into the luxurious coat, to apply the pricey hand cream, and to take the spiffy car for a test drive. Consumer researchers have confirmed that touching an item unleashes the “endowment effect.” Why do you suppose that Apple stores invite us to handle the newest gadgets? We value something more when we own it, even when we own it only for a few moments.
Recent marketing research from Boston College indicates that even “virtual ownership,” the kind created when we touch or swipe a virtual image on a tablet or phone, can powerfully influence our tendency to buy. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remove items from a digital shopping cart, despite telling yourself that you were merely considering a purchase? (Please tell me I’m not the only victim of this phenomenon.)
Earlier this week I witnessed how holding an item might influence students’ decisions to purchase the product that I am hawking: knowledge. My learners were engaged in an activity that encouraged them to handle replicas of human bones as they learned the names and features of different parts of the skeleton. One young woman, who had transferred from another college, carefully examined the model of the skull that she held, then commented, “At my last college, the labs had so many students that I never got to touch anything. It’s so much easier when you can hold it in your hand and actually see things.”
A student in another class confessed that she was initially apprehensive about using the microscope to look at slides of tissues. She explained that her instructor in a previous class had advised students to “just look at the pictures.” After only a couple of sessions, this learner enthusiastically embraced viewing the microscopic world and remarked that this experience was “nothing like the pictures.”
Anatomy & physiology is a natural fit for hands-on learning, but I hope to create even more opportunities for my students to learn by touch. I’m encouraged to learn that digital “touching” affords many of the same benefits as physical touch. The online learning platform used in my classes features lots of drag-and-drop activities to reinforce structures and processes. I’d love to hear how other instructors use literal or digital touch to help their students learn.