Why is it so difficult to catch learning in simulations?

This is a guest post from Dorothy Duchatelet, University of Antwerp.

c5da3b965b6154fdfc8a5d90912a0593For some time now, researchers have tried to answer the question: ‘What kind of learning is produced by simulations?’ Practitioners confirm that in any case something significant happens to students participating in a simulation. It has also been made clear that basing a simulation on well-defined learning objectives improves the quality of the simulation.

However, equally structured simulations, which also have the same learning objectives, have been known to lead to different results and therefore different student learning outcomes. The combined aspects of structure and agency make it difficult to predict learning outcomes of simulations. I would argue that this can be explained by looking closer into the aspect of how people learn.

Learning is everywhere and can take place whenever and wherever. This learning can be put on a continuum of which one end can be considered as formal learning. Formal learning takes place whenever the learning process is organized.

At a school, for example, most of the learning that takes place is formal because most of the time there is a more or less controlled environment. In addition, there are clear objectives and expectations of what students should reach or learn and in what manner. On the other end of the continuum, there’s informal learning. This learning is not organized and may take place, for example, when two students have a chat during lunch break or discuss a topic in their Facebook-group. Typically, informal learning results in less predictable learning outcomes.

Overall, the distinction between formal and informal learning results in the fact that learning is a continuous process and exceeds formal educational settings.

Simulations seem to narrow the gap between education and working life. Hence, they are specifically appreciated for their authenticity and closeness to real-life. Therefore, the learning that takes place will also be less organized and more informal than in a standard classroom. In the case of simulations, formal learning (e.g. learning outcomes of following procedures written down by faculty) and informal learning (e.g. learning outcomes of a discussion concerning another group’s position during a break) will take place.

It might seem clear that formal learning is much easier to catch than informal learning. This makes it really hard to catch the learning in its totality. Even though there may be clear objectives, there’s always a part of the learning that is difficult to grasp, more specifically because there’s a lot of informal learning going on. Taking the difference between formal and informal learning into account, this might be the reason why simulations always seem to result in some learning.

Therefore, the question is not if learning is taking place but what kind of learning. I’ve been wondering where on the formal-informal continuum we could place simulations. As with all learning environments, it’ll not be one end or the other. The question is how they relate to each other.

As learning is a continuous process, I believe the initiated learning process goes on after the simulation has ended. If we really want to prove the effectiveness of simulations, we’ll have to look at short term and long term learning outcomes. It seems to me, we are challenged to capture different kinds of learning, over a longer period of time to gain more insights in the effectiveness of simulations.