Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.

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