Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series aimed at newcomers to using simulations and games in their classroom.  Part 1 introduced the series and focused on how to reduce the workload required in the design and use of these pedagogies.

Skepticism is a pretty standard attitude that we face when trying to convince instructors to try simulations and games in their classes.  Beyond the issues of workload and time that cause new adopters to hesitate, there is a more basic problem: convincing instructors that simulations and games have any place at all in a classroom traditionally dominated by lecture and discussion.

I won’t bury the lede: the ALPS team are all strong proponents of the value of simulations and games in the classroom.  That being said, we are also very aware of the limits of these pedagogies, and one of us publishes consistently on the failures of simulations.  So we are not die-hard true believers. I’m going to focus this post on highlighting some of the benefits of using simulations–such as increasing interaction, engagement, and skill-building opportunities– and then turn to a potential limit–the lack of solid evidence that they improve learning.

Let’s start with the most basic benefit. Games and simulations almost universally require students to interact.  They vary tremendously in terms of how much interaction, the complexity of the rules, length of time to play, advance preparation required and whether students act out roles, but interaction of some sort is a hallmark of virtually every simulation and game out there.  Moreover, to proceed in the game, they usually have to pay attention to their peers, not only interacting but reacting to their actions. Contrast this to lecture and discussion: the former, which in its purest form has no opportunities for interaction between students, and the latter, where it can be all too easy for students to interact only with the instructor, and not necessarily pay attention to the points of their peers.  Certainly, lectures can incorporate interaction, and a well-led discussion provokes reaction between students.  But simulations and games have these features embedded in their DNA, and can help create a culture of interaction and reaction that carries over into other teaching methods.

An example of this can be found in a feature of the Classical Hobbes game I discussed in Part 1.  In this game, students challenge each other to games of Rock Paper Scissors to win ‘life cards’ and in the process learn about Hobbes and the state of nature. This game works tremendously well on the first day of class as an icebreaker that helps with interaction later on.  There are two features of the gameplay that help us here.  First, when students issue challenges, they have to introduce themselves to their opponent, starting the process of learning each others’ names. Second, the losing student in each battle can go to the instructor for a new ‘life card’–but to get one, they have to introduce themselves to their teacher.  Both of these give students a reason to interact at the very start of the class, and learning names is key to creating a culture of interaction and reaction in the classroom.

A second potential benefit of sims and games is that, in general, and when employed by a skillful instructor, they can be fun and engaging for students. Raymond and Usherwood (2013), for example, note that simulations can lead to an increase in ‘feelings of autonomy, accomplishment, relevance, relatedness to others, and pleasure among participants.”    Many scholars (e.g. Lei 2010, Tuckman 1996; Ehrman and Oxford 1995; Weiner 1990) have written about how simulations and games can heighten a student’s interest in learning.  Of all findings about games and simulations, this is perhaps the most robust (see discussions in: Chesney and Feinstein 1993, Coffey, Miller and Feuerstein 2011, Gorton and Havercroft 2012).  Many students (though certainly not all) enjoy the break in pace offered by games, and end up more engaged in the material.

Here’s a personal example of that.  In one of my classes, I use the board game Diplomacy.  I use almost no class time for this game–students turn in their moves before class starts, and after class is over, I adjudicate their moves and post the results on the LMS.  When we play this game, my students show up a half hour early for class, and stay late, discussing strategy and negotiating tactics.  In one case, Italy, Turkey, and England were fighting for first place. The leaders of Italy and Turkey cut a deal–they would cooperate and agree to work together to take out England.  The students wrote up a treaty and had their signatures notarized. I have rarely seen that kind of extra effort and dedication come out of a simple lecture. The reflection essays of the students at the end of game are almost always long, thoughtful, and full of rich detail.  The students, quite simply, like playing the game, and also are able to recognize the relevance to the IR theories we are studying.

A third benefit is that well-designed simulations can offer the opportunity for students to actively practice skills and apply their knowledge, increasing their confidence in their own abilities.  Depending on the simulation, students may engage in research, give presentations, speak publicly, negotiation, write reports, policies, or communications, manage data, work in groups, think through the ethical implications of actions,  apply theory to new situations, and think critically.  The active nature of simulations makes them a great tool for building these sorts of skills, all in the service of the course content.  An effective Model United Nations, for example, requires many of the above skills–from researching a country and its position on an issue, to making persuasive speeches, drafting resolutions, negotiating support, and working within a set of procedural rules, MUN provides a great deal of skill-building practice, even as students are learning about a specific country and issue.  Perhaps most importantly, simulations have been shown to improve student confidence in their skills and abilities (Bernstein 2008, Levintova et al 2011).


The above rationales–interaction, engagement, and a platform for active practice of skills–are benefits in which we have a lot of confidence.  Where the story gets a bit more mixed is in whether simulations actually effect learning in students.  Despite dozens of articles written on this subject, we don’t have a clear answer yet.  Research on simulations is, unfortunately, plagued with challenges.  Sample sizes, for example, are often small.  While there are simulations that can be done with larger classes, most of the examples out there are used with student populations of fifty or less, meaning that a single iteration poses challenges for statistical analysis.  Another issue is researcher bias.  Most simulation research is done by the instructors who designed and/or facilitated the simulation.  They may be biased in favor of finding positive results for their own work and students.  A third issue is lack of controls. It can be very difficult to ether divide a class so only half of it undergoes the simulation, or to control for all the possible factors that might influence results if two different classes are used, such as time of year, day, or within a semester, the instructor, or student demographics. Finally, the lack of standardized assessment instruments, in combination with a wide variation in simulation types and designs, makes it very difficult to compare studies and generalize findings about short-term or long-term learning.


What this means is that I could now tell one of two stories.  The first story can be about how well-designed, well-run simulations are a better learning tool than lectures and other inactive methods of teaching.  The second story would be about how simulations do not really have a strong impact on learning; students find them fun, but they are not better than other methods. I could support both of these stories with plenty of citations. For the second story, I need look no further than the work of ALPS Managing Editor Chad Raymond, who seems to take great delight in publishing extensively on how simulations don’t really have any effect on learning.

I’m not going to tell either of those stories. Both feel disingenuous, and my concerns about the research problems in simulations make me hesitate in making strong claims one way or another about the impact of simulations on learning.  My reading of the current state of the literature on simulations and learning is this: at the very least, simulations are no worse than lecture at enabling learning, and there is some evidence out there that they may be better, particularly for longer-term learning (Nishikawa and Jaeger 2010, Allendoerfer 2014 paper for TLC) .  There are some great studies out there that minimize the problems mentioned above, and the effects they show are promising (see Barownowski and Weir 2015 for a thorough analysis). Finally, in what is admittedly a bit of a low blow, I would point out that lectures have not been shown to be particularly effective at inducing learning, either, yet are ubiquitous and employed without question (see Bligh 2000). So I feel comfortable enough, despite the mixed record, in using simulations and games–and to work on designing, adapting, and extending simulations that have the highest potential to foster learning.

So let’s sum up: simulations create opportunities for student interaction and skill-buliding, increase engagement with the material, and are no worse (and possibly better) than other methods of instruction at improving learning.  My ultimate view is that there is we have a toolbox of teaching methods. Some of those tools we use regularly; others have a speciality purpose, rarely used, but absolutely essential under the right conditions. I would rather have as many tested tools as possible in my toolbox than reject anything out of hand.  Simulations and games are one more tool to put in that toolbox, to be used when the material and pedagogical goals call for it.  So keep your toolbox full, and consider how simulations can contribute to your classes.


One Reply to “Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations”

  1. I’ve been cited — I’m famous! Given all the methodological problems I run into trying to collect data on the effects of simulations on students, I wonder if anyone is looking at the effects classroom simulations might have on instructors?

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