Simulations: What are they good for?

This is the third (first and second) in my series chronicling my experience working with two undergraduate students to develop a simulation for my comparative politics class. Last week, we had the opportunity to run a mini-simulation for the group. We thought it would be useful to introduce my students to the independent study students and to the idea of role-play simulations. Plus, as it was early in the semester, it was a nice community-building/ice-breaker activity (my students are part of a live-and-learn community, so this is important for us). The program includes a 1-credit evening class, which provided the perfect venue for running this mini-simulation, which one of the independent study students had written for his summer internship. The simulation was not designed to capture anything that we were covering in class.

I facilitated one of the six groups, observed the debriefing session, and read my students’ reflection papers. The experience reinforced the findings of much of the literature on simulations. In particular:

  • Simulations encourage students to make connections and apply course material. Despite not being designed for the class, I was impressed with how the students immediately invoked course material in their discussions without any prompting. They naturally sought to make the connections, even though it was only two weeks into the semester and the simulation was not directly tied to any course content.
  • Beyond knowledge acquisition, simulations are valuable for skills-building. In their reflection papers, many students noted how they had to use negotiation and communication skills in the simulation. Even a simulation that was seemingly unrelated to course content has value for the sorts of skills we hope undergraduates develop.
  • Character buy-in is important. The mini-simulation was exceptionally well written and many of the students surprised even themselves with how invested in their characters and the outcome they became, even in two short hours. This meant students were negotiating (and in some cases fighting) for what their characters would want.
  • And, as we all know, a good debriefing is crucial. One interesting insight that came out of the debriefing was how the simulation encouraged students to think about their cultural (i.e. American/western) bias when considering politics in a developing, African (although fictional) country.

In all, the evening made me optimistic about the success of the long-term simulation we’re developing for the course. It also reminded me of the broad benefits of simulations for applying knowledge and building skills, even when you didn’t intend it.