Many have argued that interactive 3D virtual environments have great educational potential due to their ability to engage learners in the exploration, construction and manipulation of virtual objects, structures and metaphorical representations of ideas. Although learning benefits have been demonstrated in research settings, and substantial usage has occurred in workplace training contexts, there are few published evaluations of applications of such environments within university contexts. This article reports on studies exploring the effectiveness of a virtual environment based on a chemistry laboratory as a tool to prepare university chemistry students studying at a distance for their on-campus residential schools, in response to evidence suggesting that many of these students experienced a lack of confidence and a sense of anxiety approaching these sessions. In an experimental study it was found that the environment was able to be effective as a tool for familiarising students with the laboratory. However, when the resource was provided to distance students, less than half of the students chose to use it, possibly due to the fact that use of the resource was not required for the assessment in the subject. Questionnaire and interview data suggested that most of those who used the resource found that it was a valuable preparatory tool and would recommend its further use. For many students, however, a lack of familiarity with the laboratory was not seen as the major source of their anxiety and therefore a resource allowing them to become familiar with the laboratory did not have a major impact on their learning experience. Given that the ability to apply mathematical techniques and chemistry concepts within the practical sessions emerged as a major source of students' anxiety, it is suggested that the incorporation of instruction or scaffolding for these aspects of the task can be provided, and would make a valuable enhancement to the virtual environment.