What are simulations?
Simulations are instructional scenarios where the learner is placed in a "world" defined by the teacher to represent a reality within which students interact. The teacher controls the parameters of this "world" and uses them to help students achieve the learning outcomes. Students experience the realism of the scenario and gather meaning from it.
A simulation is a form of experiential learning. It is a strategy that fits well with the principles of student-centred and constructivist learning and teaching; that is, learning and teaching that gives students power over what they learn and how they learn it, and that allows students to build their understanding of what they're learning through their experiences and interactions, rather than just passively receiving information.
Simulations take a number of forms. They may contain elements of:
- a game
- a role-play
- a tabletop exercise
- an activity that acts as a metaphor.
Simulations are characterised by their non-linear nature and by their deliberate ambiguity, which encourages students to think independently as they make decisions. The inventiveness and commitment of the participants usually determines the success of a simulation.
Why use simulations?
Simulations promote the use of critical and evaluative thinking. Because they are ambiguous or open-ended, they encourage students to contemplate the implications of a scenario. The situation feels real, and thus leads students to engage with the activity more enthusiastically and interactively.
Simulations help students learn both concepts and how to apply them in a nuanced way in an unforeseen situation. Students often find them more deeply engaging than other activities, as they experience the activity first-hand.
Simulations help students appreciate more deeply the management of the environment, politics, community and culture. For example, by participating in a resource distribution activity, students might gain an understanding of inequity in society. Simulations can reinforce other skills indirectly, such as debating and research skills.
Common issues using simulations
Resources and time are required to develop a quality learning experience that uses simulations. Assessment of student learning through simulation is often more complex than with other methods.
Simulated experiences are more realistic than some other techniques and they can be so engaging and absorbing that students forget the educational purpose of the exercise.
If your simulation has an element of competition, it is important to remind the students that the goal is not to win, but to acquire knowledge and understanding.
How to achieve effective teaching with case studies
In a simulation, guided by a set of parameters, students solve problems, adapt to issues arising from their scenario and gain an awareness of the unique circumstances that exist within the parameters.
Some simulations require only a few minutes to an hour, while others may extend over weeks. Scope and content varies greatly. However, similar principles apply to all simulations.
1) Prepare as much as possible
- Know what you want to accomplish. Even a brief simulation activity should have clearly written learning outcomes. (See Examples of Learning Outcomes for some sample outcomes and guidelines; while the examples are on a broader scale, you can apply the principles to writing learning outcomes at any level, including individual activities.)
- Develop evaluation criteria along with the learning outcomes, and ensure that students are aware of the specific outcomes expected of them in advance. You might find it best to use simulations as part of the process of learning rather than as a summative measure of it.
- Design the simulation as simply as possible, eliminating everything that does not clearly contribute to the students' achieving the learning objectives. It's better to have the simulation too simple than too complex, even if that means sacrificing some of the realism.
- Ensure that students understand the procedures before beginning. Frustration can arise when too many uncertainties exist. Develop a student guide and put the rules in writing.
- Try to anticipate questions. Some simulations are fast-paced, and ready responses help maintain a sense of reality.
2) Monitor the process closely
Teachers must monitor the simulation process to ensure that students both understand the process and benefit from it. Ask yourself:
- Does this simulation offer an appropriate level of realism for my group of students?
- Do the students understand the learning outcomes?
- Is the level of ambiguity manageable for this group?
- Do the students demonstrate an understanding of their roles?
- Are they using problem-solving techniques?
- Are they working together?
- Are they achieving the goals of the simulation?
- Do they provide meaningful answers to probing questions?
- Will follow-up activities be necessary to help them solidify their learning or resolve difficulties?
3) Consider the need for follow-up activities
Use follow-up activities such as discussions, journal entries or other reflective activities to determine how well the students understood what the simulation was designed to teach. Using reflection as the assessable component of the activity, rather than participation in the simulation itself, can be a useful way of determining students' understanding.
Using rich media to create simulations
For help using rich media to create simulations, contact Creative Development and Educational Media Production.
de Smale, S., Overmans, T., Jeuring, J. & van de Grint, L. (2016). The effect of simulations and games on learning objectives in tertiary education: A systematic review. In de Gloria, A., Veltkamp, R. (eds), Games and Learning Alliance. GALA 2015. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 9599. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-40216-1_55
Ding, D., Guan, G. & Yinghui, Y. (2017). Game-based learning in tertiary education: A new learning experience for the Generation Z. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 7(2), 148-152. doi: 10.18178/ijiet.2017.7.2.857
Kilgour, P., Reynaud, D., Northcote, M. T. & Shields, M. (2015). Role-playing as a tool to facilitate learning, self-reflection and social awareness in teacher education. International Journal of Innovative Interdisciplinary Research, 2(4), 8-20.
Wiggins, B.E. (2016). An overview and study on the use of games, simulations, and gamification in higher education. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 6(1), 18-29.