Simulations for students, or students for simulations?

One of the big topics of debate in the Simulations I track at APSA’s TLC in Long Beach  was about making simulations work for students. For many of the people around the room, this meant fitting the students into the most appropriate roles for their personality type, or adjusting the simulation to match the range of types.

I can certainly see the value of this approach. It makes it more likely that the simulation will run as anticipated, especially when it requires student buy-in – via their preparation and participation – to work: as one panellist said, it’s no good having a debate if the student doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, with the relatively small group sizes that most people were working with (in the 10-20 range), there was much scope to build in elements that reflected particular expertise: the presence of two communication majors in one simulation on presidential debates allowed for the development of an extra line of activity that would have been very difficult with pol sci students.

This was best encapsulated when I asked Michael Lyons  – whose congressional sim is in its 30th iteration – what would happen if both party leaders were weak/shy. Michael looked rather horrified at the thought and then said it would descend into chaos.

Maybe it’s just me, but I actually really like the idea of chaos.

One of the great pedagogic strengths of simulations is that there is as much – indeed more, if we follow Amanda and Nina’s line – to be learnt from failure as there is from success. If a lecture is poorly done, then students won’t get anything from it, but if a simulation doesn’t run in its anticipated path, then that is a powerful learning opportunity for everyone.

Let’s take an example to illustrate.

In our TLC workshop (resources here) Victor ran his World War II sim with the group. Despite having done this many times with students, the group can up with a different outcome to any other: after some discussion, we agreed that this was because the collective knowledge in the room on the limits of realist approaches to war and peace was far greater than would be the case with students, hence decisions were made with a forestalling of anticipated responses. Victor learnt something from that, as so did the group. Win-win.

Likewise, I have always been happy for my students to fail. I’ve had three full days of negotiations end up with nothing agreed, but still my students engaged with, and reflected upon, the reasons for that, even if it was deeply frustrating (perhaps because of that).

If we cleave to students’ proclivities or personalities (and I’m not even sure I’m too happy about the whole notion of learning styles that’s bound up with this), then we will have safer simulations, but also simulations that are less likely to have that learning through failure. In the case of Michael’s congressional sim, there would be chaos, but then students would start to recognise the reasons for that and try to address them (maybe by removing or bypassing the party leader), then in turn seeing that leadership is not the only barrier to finding majorities in Congress.

Yes, it’s messy and awkward and (occasionally) painful – not to mention the scope for people saying ‘your sim failed’ – but actually sims cannot fail in those terms. Failure is usually a valid outcome (certainly in most political topics): we only have to open a newspaper to see real-world actors failing all the time. As long as we can reflect with our students about why we fail, then we actually win, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Heuristics In The Snow

I’m a big fan of heuristics. Heuristics are essentially checklists or other procedures that can efficiently guide one’s thinking when making decisions in environments of stress and uncertainty. The Apgar score is a heuristic that gets applied to many of us before we even know what heuristics are. When I fly, I use an “airport” heuristic to get me to the correct gate in time for my flight.

An important aspect of any heuristic is that it be evaluated regularly in terms of the outcomes it generates and modified if needed. For example, I will soon be digging my car out of wet snow with my hands. One item in my airport heuristic needs to be changed from “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight, park in the long term lot” to “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight in the winter, park in a garage.” My wife will remind me of this when she watches me try to clear away the snow.

This recent warning to college professors from a high school teacher made me realize that a huge portion of the students now entering college use a particular heuristic to navigate the testing environment of K-12. When these students hit college, they discover that the heuristic that they have relied upon for many years is no longer effective. They fail the first exam that is not composed entirely of multiple choice questions. Or they hear for the first time that their writing is actually quite bad. The students experience an emotional shock and blame their professors, who in turn blame K-12 educators.

An opportunity is being missed here. If we teach new college students to examine the deeper structure of the problem – not “why did I score three points below passing on this exam?” but “what is guiding my thinking about learning and what might need to be changed about it?” – there might be less interest in playing the blame game.

Purpose and Intent

Three days in conference has yielded much… but I am reminded yet again…that the foundational choices and decisions we make to engage our students must begin and end with clear intent.

The single most commonly articulated point: MAKE CERTAIN YOUR OBJECTIVES ARE CLEAR. If we begin with this in preparation, selection of activity, debriefing, and assessment you will find success in achieving learning in the room.

Drawing a clear line from objectives to execution and assessment is the challenge and the lifeline in playing with games and simulations. As Amanda Rosen and I consistently commented throughout the days in conference, it isn’t enough to select teaching tools/media/games that emphasize a topic…Marketing_Ch1_Pt3_Marketing_Objectives

The lesson is the same for us as it is for our students…. identify a clearly articulated thesis/argument. With this in mind the selection of your activity will highlight the key dynamics or reinforce the worldview you seek to elevate rather than rummaging around for impressions and opinions about an issue.

Intent is everything.

For example: Daniel Beers from Knox College presented his work in real-time simulation. He ran a simulation about the Haitian earthquake, and certainly this is a wonderful topic…but we must ask ourselves about the purpose. What did Beers hope to convey to his students through that topic?

Beers’ purpose was to highlight the dynamics and challenges of internally displaced persons under crisis and to humanize the devastation through the simulation.

Beers’ simulation was well-tailored and clear-eyed in execution…. the result of a clearly articulated objective at the outset.

Fantastic stuff…

Teaching and Learning, Gangnam-Style

You would think since all of are here together, and four of us in the same room, that at some point we would have discussed a live blogging schedule–or even that we intended to live blog.  I guess we are just a spontaneous bunch, us ALPSers.  Take Victor, for example: he promised to do the post-track summary with an interpretation of the PSY song Gangnam Style, but chickened out at the last minute.

I want to echo the comments made by Simon and Chad though about how valuable this experience can be.  TLC is such a great space for talking about teaching and doing research on teaching.  The track style really encourages collaboration both at the conference and beyond.  Questions get raised–why don’t we have good processes for sharing resources for our classes–and efforts are made to solve them (this blog is one of them, but certainly not the only one).  In the Sims and RP 2 track, there is a culture of constructive dialogue rather than attack and tear down.  Its a safe space to talk about what we are doing and push each other to do more.

The highlights for me have been the short-course on Simulation Design and the socializing.  I can’t judge how effective it was for the participants, but it was fascinating watching my colleagues teach, as all of our styles are vastly different.  We definitely want to revise the course and try it again in the future.

As for the socializing, it is those interactions where I generate new ideas for pedagogical research.  Some of the most valuable professional relationships I have have been formed at TLCs past, and many of them started as random conversations in the halls and bars of the conference.  This year I got the added fun of introducing people to Innovation, one of my favorite card games.  I am trying to think through a way to apply some of the mechanics in that game to educational games for international relations, and playing the game as an effort at crowd-sourcing some solutions.  While we did get some movement on that front, the real joy here was utterly trouncing Simon–twice.


It’s the last morning of TLC, but I’m not going to be there because of flight commitments (and I’m sulking about getting beaten by Amanda in Innovation last night). As last time, it’s been such a rich experience that I want to start working through the many points I’ve built up already now.

However, the first thing is to echo Chad’s point that is has been immensely gratifying to meet so many people who read this blog. I’ll admit, it’s a bit (i.e. a lot) creepy to have someone you’ve never met before turn around, their eyes widen and then whisper “it’s susherwood!” in a general air of disbelief – but it’s also really cool.

From my perspective, as the old world anchor of the ALPS group, I don’t get to interact in the same way with them (or you, our global audience notwithstanding) and so most of my contribution comes from the little conversations in my head. To have time and space to talk to a room full of people is amazingly helpful for me.

It’s also just so good to know that people read the stuff we do, because we simply don’t get a sense of that otherwise (well, I don’t, at least). Several people have said to me and the others how useful and/or stimulating some of our posts have been and that’s great, but also a bit frustrating, because I know I would like to be in on those conversations you have. The reason is simply that even with the work we’ve done, we’re still learning too and it’s in the interactions that we can advance our practice.

A meme recently, indicating how many years this joke has been going on already

So please do comment on our posts and/or volunteer entire posts, since it can only help us all. Those of you we met will know that we don’t bite, that Chad really does have a wife, that Kim Kardashian memes don’t always travel well and that we struggle to organise a meal out together. Only you can help.

In the coming days/weeks, I hope I can build on some of the conversations and thoughts I’ve had here in Long Beach. These are going to include (you’ll note I’m doing what I did last week with building in commitments):

    • How far should we design simulations to the specific characteristics of students, as compared to pushing them out of comfort zones? (following the Sims 1 track);
    • What do we need to know in order to successfully share a simulation? (Amanda);
    • The importance of affective buy-in as an outcome of simulations, alongside improvements in assessment performance (Marsha Lyle-Gonga);
    • Simulations as a reflection of designer preoccupations (Michael Lyons);
    • Reality versus abstraction in simulation design(our TLC workshop);
    • Potential new simulations on the EU (Amy Forster Rothbart), preparation and fantasy drafts (Dave Bridge) and collective decision-making (Taiyi Sun).

But you can and should ask us to address points too: we certainly don’t know it all and there’s plenty we don’t even think to question or discuss.

So thank you once again for making this worthwhile and we look forward to hearing from you all soon. And not just “Susherwood…!”

What Is Political Science

Michael Brintnall, APSA executive director, talked to TLC attendees earlier today about the need for those who teach politics to act with a disciplinary voice in shaping the undergraduate political science curriculum. Historically, decisions about what a student should learn about the practice and analysis of politics have been left to individual departments and faculty. However, our students are increasingly cobbling together their college educations from a variety of institutions and professors. Without systematic agreement on what constitutes a minimally sufficient baseline of political knowledge, it’s more likely that students will leave college with significant gaps in their understanding.

I find this subject particularly relevant — I work at a university in which political science majors are not required to take a course in comparative politics or international relations. Since majors aren’t required to take these courses, many of them don’t. I can guess that similar situations exist at other institutions.

Game Saturation?

In the mix of day two at TLC 2013. Hundreds of amazing ideas and new games to play. Nevertheless, we are 48 hours into the sims marathon and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.. winning & losing, grading & assessing…. the exhaustion leaves me with a single question…

Is it in our specific intent to convert so many to active learning that each class day for our students is entirely about games, simulations, critical thinking, development of problem-based learning…. is there a chance we could over-saturate them?

Live From the 10th Annual TLC

Greetings from the 10th APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in sunny (not) Long Beach, California. A few thoughts for now; I’ll be posting more later:

  • It’s a big strange to run into blog groupies (bloogies? grobs?) who exclaim “Oh! You’re so-and-so!” Or to find out that one’s blog posts get re-transmitted across the Internet via Twitter feeds. It makes me feel a bit like Kim Kardashian.
  • In the interests of creating more of a person connection with readers, I’ve inserted a photo of myself into this post.

    Disclaimer: I am not Kim Kardashian
    Disclaimer: I am not Kim Kardashian
  • The professional development and networking opportunities afforded by the TLC are amazing. It’s hard for me to believe that this blog originated at the TLC two years ago and is now read regularly by people around the world. It’s also hard to believe that my participation in the TLC has led to four peer-reviewed publications, with two more manuscripts currently under review — all on topics that highly relevant to the most important aspect of my job (teaching).
  • It’s comforting to realize that one is part of a much larger community that regards teaching and learning as personally rewarding and socially important. It I didn’t have this community, I’d probably feel like I was toiling away in a dungeon more frequently than I do now.


Money/mouth (again)

Let’s put this one down to jetlag (since I’m in my Long Beach hotel room at 5am, having spent an hour doing this), but I’m making good on my previous post.

On my ‘How To Do Simulation Games’ website, I’ve just posted a new game – a simulation simulation – to try and help new users of simulations to appreciate the various elements that they will need to take account of.

It’s still very rough (as am I right now), but it gives the idea. I’m happy to take advice/suggestions on changing elements, but I’d be even happier if someone played it. I don’t think we’ll have a chance at APSA TLC tomorrow, but you never know.

Right – back to trying to sleep.

Putting your money where your mouth is

One of the more useful realisations in my professional life has been that my practice often advances best when I put myself in a somewhat awkward position. Thus, by committing to a conference paper, for instance, I lock myself into producing work that otherwise might stay little more than a latent idea in my head. In short, my sense of social obligation can be hijacked, especially by myself.

And so it has been with APSA TLC, which runs this week in Long Beach, CA. I’ve written and posted my paper,  and prepared my part of the short course, and generally tried to be a good citizen.

However, in the writing of the paper I came to the conclusion that one of the things that would be potentially useful to new users of simulations was a simulation on designing simulations (nb that sentence makes more sense if you read the paper): by getting people to actively engage with the difficulties of designing simulations, they would better understand them and come to recognise how to overcome them.

Having put this out there, I now find myself feeling in some way obliged to try and make that simulation, to demonstrate its viability (rather than simply leaving it as an abstracted thought). Indeed, the act of writing this blog further suggests to me that I’m trying to lock myself into this course of action.

My hesitation comes from two sources. Firstly, there is the rather ‘meta’ issue that such a simulation is going to be tricky to produce – which is exactly what the simulation is supposed to be about – but I fear that is more my problem than yours.

The second is simply one of time. APSA TLC starts on Friday this week; I fly out tomorrow (and I have several blockbusters I need to catch up with in-flight), by which time I’ve got to leave my affairs here in the office in order. This leaves hardly any time at all to work something up by the time of my presentation on Friday afternoon, especially if we assume I can find some sights to see in LA on Thursday (not to mention In-n-Out, for reasons too complicated to go into now).

But I’m going to give it a try. Partly that’s my social obligation kicking in, so that my fellow panelists don’t think I’m just being an armchair spectator. But partly it’s my own curiosity. Even since writing the paper I’ve been turning it over in my head and I think it would do me good to try and get it out.

It might not work, but I’ll have tried. And sometimes it’s the trying that matters.