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.

Online Simulations & Games Using Discord

I mentioned Discord about a year ago as we were all turning to virtual instruction at the start of the pandemic. I want to return to it specifically in the games and simulations context, though, as it has some really useful properties that can aid those instructors looking for a way to run their online simulations. If you are ready to start thinking about how to run Model UN, Diplomacy, or other complex simulations online, you should really consider Discord.

Discord is a social media platform used by gamers, podcasters, and other content creators to connect with their communities. Each group has their own discord ‘server’, a private space that you can only enter with an invitation. Inside, you can create text and voice based ‘channels’ that let you structure conversations by topic. These channels can be open to everyone on the server or private and hidden. As the server creator or administrator, you also have a lot of latitude for customizing settings–such as making something read-only or enabling ‘slow mode’, which prevents any one person from dominating the conversation. And server members can message each other individually or create small groups for private conversation. The text conversation is asynchronous, but it is easy to jump into a voice channel for voice-only or video conversations.

This kind of format lends itself very well to running complex simulations. There are several key needs for running an online simulation:

  • Instructors must be able to review rules and procedures, share documents and updates, and take questions from students, publicly and privately.
  • Students need to be able to post in-character public messages for other participants to see.
  • Students need to be able to post privately to their teammates, if they have them.
  • Students need to be able to send private messages to other students for secret negotiations.
  • Students may need to post files or links, share their screen, or jump onto a quick voice conversation.

It is easy to do all of this in Discord, without the constraints of a standard learning management system/virtual learning environment. By creating ‘roles’ in the server with different permissions, you can divide students by their teams or in-game roles and set channels that only they can access and that can identify them within the server. This makes communication much easier. For example, if you are running a UN Security Council simulation, you can create a ‘role’ for each country in Discord. You might not need to set up private channels for each country if there is only one person in each role, but this allows students to message each other without having to check a list of who is playing what role. They could also have a public channel for making speeches, and another where they upload and discuss the wording on resolutions. If you are running a full UN simulation with many different committees, you can have channels dedicated to the General Assembly and each committee, and private channels dedicated to each country so members of the same team can talk privately and share information. Discord therefore supports simulations both large and small.

I’m using Discord right now to run a game of Diplomacy in my ISA Career Course on Games and Simulations in International Relations (with Victor Asal). There are plenty of online platforms that you can use, but I chose to use Discord because I didn’t know in advance if I would have more than 7 players. Most online platforms don’t allow for teams–but Discord does. Here is what the server looks like:

As you can see, I have a general channel for administrative purposes. I’ve since created a new read-only channel called ‘maps and result’s where I post the outcomes of each game turn along with updated maps. The public channels–text and voice–are open to all players if they want to openly communicate. Italy has made a call for peace and protection of the status quo–but no responses so far! the other channels are organized by country category. Each country has a private text and voice channel open only to their team and the facilitators. They also have a private ‘orders’ channel where they submit orders for their units each turn. I use those channels to adjudicate each turn. If they want to message another team, all they have to do is right-click on the name of the person they want to message (their country name is next to their name) and select ‘message’ and that will open up a private conversation for negotiations. The person-shaped icon in the top right of the screen pops up the list of server members for this purpose. It will also tell you who is online in case you want to invite them into a voice chat.

Running the game this way instead of over email or through an online game system gives me several advantages as an instructor. I can keep tabs on most of the gameplay, although some private conversations I would only see if I’m invited to join them (something you can require if you want). I also have a record after the gameplay of everything that happened, which is useful for debriefing, grading, and assessment. The interface is easy to use, and once students get familiar with it, you can reuse it for different games and exercises throughout your course. I can also allow ‘observers’–people who want to watch but not play. I can give them as much access as I want–for example, I can limit them to read- and listen-only so they can’t interfere with the game play.

I’ve used discord for running an monthly trivia game as well as a 200+ person multi day conference, so I can attest to its robust capabilities. It is free, accessible from outside the US, pretty easy to learn, and has a robust mobile app that make it accessible to students. The main downsides are that the server creator needs to put in a bit of work to figure out how to set up the server to meet your needs, and that the video and screen sharing systems aren’t always reliable. Asynchronous text channels and voice channel work just fine though.

I know a lot of faculty want to run simulations but are restricted by social distancing or virtual classrooms. If you are ready to try something new, try Discord. I have no relationship with the company and am not being compensated by them for this post–I just want to recommend something that I’ve found very useful in my own teaching.

Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading “Making Games As Teaching Tools”

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.

Simulating the Bargaining Model of War

Dr. Kyle Hanes is our guest contributor this week.  An assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, he describes a game he created to simulate the bargaining model of war.  Full instructions on his simulation can be found in his October 2015 PS: Political Science & Politics article.

The bargaining model of war has become so central to scholarly work on interstate conflict that, I would argue, it should be incorporated into even introductory IR courses. The bargaining model’s logic is intuitive and compelling, but even treatments of it in introductory textbooks rely on formal notation that can confuse or alienate many students. I can still hear the crickets echoing through my classroom as I excitedly asked students to explain why “State B will accept any offer greater than 1 – p – c.”

In trying to cut through this notation to explain the bargaining logic and “incentives to misrepresent,” I would often fall back on the logic of gambling. Misrepresentation is, in effect, bluffing. And even if most students don’t host a weekly card game, the majority are at least vaguely familiar with the logic of bluffing in poker. Why does a poker player make a large bet with a weak hand? Doing so might allow them to win the pot without even having to show their cards. Ultimately, it’s the same reason why states exaggerate their military power or willingness to fight over a disputed piece of territory. Over time, I developed this metaphor into a simple, in-class card game that illustrates the core logic of the bargaining model of war. The game is fun, simple, and engages students directly in the bargaining logic. The game’s rules and parameters are extremely flexible, and can be adapted to highlight different components of the bargaining model’s logic.

Continue reading “Simulating the Bargaining Model of War”

Start the way you mean to finish (and continue)

It’s the middle of the summer and I don’t teach again until late August. But, I am thinking about first days. It’s an important day of class, but it’s easy to treat it as a throwaway class (that’s certainly how most students seem to see it).syllabus

What do you do? Most of us probably do the usual: go over the syllabus (to some degree or another), answer questions, do an icebreaker, and some of us might start teaching (to our students’ chagrin)

Continue reading “Start the way you mean to finish (and continue)”

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.

Continue reading “Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations”

Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

Continue reading “Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes”

TLC 2016: Highlights from the Simulations and Games Track

Most of the ALPS team reunites this weekend for the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Portland, Oregon. As usual, we are all on the Simulations and Games Track, sharing the latest on new games and simulations for teaching political science and discussing principles of design, evaluation, application, and assessment.

A few highlights so far:
–Victor Asal’s ‘Running Game’, which has students race to the front of the classroom facing an increased series of structural constraints (in the form of TAs given a head start). It’s a quick exercise that helps explore issues of structure, rational action, culture, and grievance.
–Michelle Allendoerfer worked with two undergraduates to create a multi-day comparative politics simulation looking at state building in a region of ethnic division and scarce resources.

Continue reading “TLC 2016: Highlights from the Simulations and Games Track”

Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

Continue reading “Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge”