Simulations for Large Classes: Problematizing Unitary Actors

Today is the first of a series of posts by a guest contributor, Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Large ClassAs an instructor at a large state university, one of the main challenges of active learning exercises is employing them in large classes. Many existing simulations are designed for classes of 10-30 students, and adapting them to larger classes can be intimidating. Despite this, I encourage folks to think of large classes as an advantage rather than a hindrance. Rather than presenting students with the necessarily simplified world of a small simulation, you can introduce students to even more complex concepts. Here are a few tricks I have picked up from using simulations in classes with 50+ students:

Simulations or games built with smaller classes in mind have to make certain assumptions about the internal decision-making structures of the actors involved. A larger class offers the ability to add internal political structures that introduce students to the notion of juggling domestic interests versus international possibilities. This notion does not have to be limited to simulations of state actors; non-state groups can also be assumed to have internal decision-making structures.

Students who comprise actors that are expected to multi-task in a simulation can be assigned distinct roles to perform. However, a major problem in larger classes is the tendency of some students to free-ride. It is imperative to make roles specific, varied, and incentivized to avoid the following pitfalls:

First, students often do not immediately understand how their roles fit into the overall simulation. As much as this may be obvious to you as the designer, students often need some time fully grasp their role within a larger system of interlinked pieces and what actions they should take in order to maximize their effectiveness. It can be helpful to give students guidelines about possible actions they can take and strategies they might want to pursue. I create advisory guides that are no longer than one page to orient students to the simulation (“your role can determine the fate of X”) as well as giving them some ideas as to how to be effective (“should you want to accomplish goal X, you might want to explore paths A, B and C”). While it is important not to reveal too much and let students find their own path, limited class time makes this kind of advice necessary.

Second, students often obtain the impression that their role is being adequately performed by others within the simulation. This tendency in and of itself can lead to a lecture on free-riding, but it can sometimes alter the balance of a simulation. Moreover, shirking tends to be contagious; if one student is sitting to the side checking Facebook, etc. it will be much more likely for others to do the same. It is therefore important to make student roles unique, so that each student is solely responsible for a single aspect of an overall mission. It can sometimes be beneficial to assign more than one student to a specific role, but I avoid assigning the same function to more than two students in a simulation.

Third, students often lack incentives to play their roles effectively when forced to compete with one another. Sometimes students would rather depart from their role than perform actions that might put them at odds with another student. This can be very damaging to an otherwise effective simulation given that competitiveness between students is often designed as an institutional constraint. To solve this problem, I introduce goals tailored to each actor or group of actors for students to achieve, with “bonus points” as a reward. These goals often compete and conflict with those of other actors, and it is nearly impossible for any one actor (or group of actors) to achieve all of their goals. Instead, these goals function as a tool to incentivize certain behaviors within the simulation. I separate these points from other forms of assessment, since I don’t want the competitiveness of some students to adversely other students’ grades. Instead, I award bonus points for goal completion. These points are, of course, almost insignificant when it comes to students’ final grades, but I find that they generate much more competitive behavior. Students are suckers for points.

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