New frontiers for simulations: what matters?

In this series of posts (here and here), I have been considering some questions that have struck me as important in the continuing development of simulations as a pedagogy.  This stems from a workshop on simulations in EU Studies that I attended last month.

A key issue that emerged for me at the workshop was one that I had never really considered beforehand, even though it is clearly central to our understanding of the value of simulations in the classroom: What is it that matters in a simulation?

In all the discussions that we have about the benefits of simulations, we point to the value of active learning, of knowledge and skills development, of enhanced self-confidence and of practical application to a learner-led environment. Sounds great.

A bright future for simulations?

But what matters in this?

Put differently, what could we take away and still reap the benefits?

Are simulations a threshold pedagogy – where anything one does is beneficial, regardless of complexity, once a threshold is passed – or a variable one – where the more you do with it, the more you get out?

The question is important because the answer has a direct impact on how we use simulations. If it turns out that anything that involves students playing a role in a scenario produces measurable benefits in learning, then the incentive to do more is much reduced. Conversely, if more complexity adds more value, then we might press on to much grander schemes than we currently conceive of.

From my perspective, I run small, simple games. Partly this is due to limitations on time and space that I can have with my students, but it’s also driven by a desire to create generic scenarios that teach generic lessons about negotiation, without getting too distracted by the fine detail of a major simulation game. I see improvements in my students’ learning and practice, but I am not clear what specifically drives that.

In the context of designing more meaningful evaluations of the impact of simulations, defining the ‘simulation’ part is as important as defining the ‘impact’. Too often, we discuss simulations as if they were all of a piece and comparable in all relevant dimensions, even if they are patently different. Victor’s state of nature game is fundamentally different from a multi-day, multi-centred international recreation of the European Parliament, even if they share elements of play and student-focus.

The difficulty in this is obvious. Simulations are intrinsically flexible and adaptable, which is why those who use them like them so much. The variability of scale and focus lends itself to meeting very different requirements, be they skills- or knowledge-based. But the cost is that the ‘benefit’ is similarly not mono-dimensional.

My interest in skills development is different from someone else’s knowledge enhancement, but both are valid metrics from a simulation. Indeed, two users can use the same simulation in very different ways and produce different learning outcomes and that too is a valid process.

Again, this is not something with an easy resolution, for precisely the reasons outlined. However, if we don’t address it, then we run the twin risks of losing out on the full potential for student learning and of undermining the use of simulations by promoting practice that does not benefit learning.

TPR in Role-Playing and Simulations

Here is the second post by guest contributor Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

After using total physical response (TPR) in my French classrooms, I found three benefits to using it in political science courses.

Physical SkeletonFirst, linking concepts to action leads to higher levels of retention in the student. While the actions taken in political science classes aren’t as literally performative as in foreign language ones, political science instructors can develop role-playing and simulation activities that use TPR. In language classrooms, students may act out commands like picking up a book, walking around the room, or greeting a classmate. In the political science classroom, actions occur in a more imaginary realm, such as students acting out diplomatic negotiations.

Second, instructors don’t need to shy away from creating complex activities to help  students build a knowledge base. TPR research shows that more complex verbal commands result in dramatic improvements in student understanding. With this in mind, however, instructors should ensure that complex activities are focused in terms of learning objectives. Activities shouldn’t be complex for complexity’s sake.

Third, TPR’s focus on a singular learning objective allows higher levels of comprehension and retention of the concepts, while also creating a strong foundation for future skills. As the instructor develops role-playing and simulation activities, a clear learning objective for each stage of the game is important, as well as consideration for how the outcomes can be referenced throughout the semester.

When I incorporated TPR strategies into my political science classes, the goal wasn’t to make students move around just for the sake of using TPR. Rather, I looked for a concept or theory that could be enhanced by game-playing. First, I considered the topics that produced the most anxiety or confusion among my students, and then I examined the viability of these topics into a role-playing or simulation situation: Did the topic lend itself to becoming an in-class activity? Finally, I looked at the logistics of playing a game: how much class time could I devote to it? What would my main learning objective be and how would I meet it? How could I assess the outcomes of the game? I eventually settled on the topic of comparative advantage, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

Let’s Get Physical

Today begins a series of posts by a guest contributor, Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

I first started teaching when I was a graduate student in a French literature program. Instructors there were trained to teach languages with the communicative method, which involves creating a classroom “immersion” experience for students where only the target language is spoken. Instructors were also encouraged to use total physical response (TPR).

Newton-JohnDeveloped for second-language learners by James J. Asher, TPR links listening comprehension to physical action. With TPR, students listen to a command in a foreign language and immediately obey. For example, a student may hear “Stand up, walk to the door, and shut it” in the target language, and is expected to then carry out these actions. The process begins simply, but over the course of a session commands become more complex.

Second-language learners exposed to TPR showed higher levels of listening comprehension than students exposed to other teaching techniques, and Asher concluded that TPR produced dramatic changes in students’ learning. Asher also found TPR was less stressful to second-language learners, as the students weren’t overwhelmed with having to cultivate two skills at once, like listening comprehension and spoken fluency.

In a language classroom, TPR is fairly easy to implement. Instructors focus on improving listening comprehension first, and students can benefit from seeing peers or the instructor model actions, so the technique can be used with varying class sizes.

When I switched my area of study, I wanted to bring TPR into my political science classes but was unclear how to do it. How could I get students out of their seats to connect actions to the material? And would TPR be as useful in improving students’ retention of political science concepts and theories as it was for second-language learning?

My solution was to turn to role-playing and simulation as a way of adapting TPR to  political science. More on that in my next post.

Whodunnit?:Mysteries and Teaching Critical Thinking

I recently returned from a trip to the UK where sadly susherwood’s and my schedules were not compatible enough to arrange a meetup.  While I was gone a new reality competition started up in the US called ‘Whodunnit?’.  A cross between the game Clue and CSI, contestants on the show are ‘killed’ one by one with the remainder investigating the scene to determine how the crime was completed.  Those who come closest to understanding the details of the crime are safe from harm, and those who mess it up are in danger of becoming the next victim.

The execution of the show does not really live up to the excellent premise, but watching it made me think about the use of mysteries to teach critical thinking in the classroom.  The inductive nature of being given a series of clues and pieces of evidence and trying to piece together events is quite useful training for students, and the use of mysteries gives it a fun edge that makes the answer worth knowing.  Any class that attempts to teach critical thinking could take a break to consider a mystery, although perhaps the best place for this is an undergraduate methods course.  I’ve posted before about Zendo, another critical thinking game that works great in methods.

I thought about assigning students to watch the show, but then remembered the fundamental rule of this blog: active learning is almost always better than passive learning.  So why have them watch a show when I can have them act it out?

If you want to try this, there are a few ways to go about it.  One would be to have students play the board game Clue.  This has limited applications though since the number of players is generally quite small, maybe 6-8.  Another option would be to give the students the details and evidence from a mystery–an episode of a mystery-themed show, or a short story or novel–and have them try to solve the crime.  Mystery buffs might spot the similarities though, particularly if you use a well-known case.

The option I’m toying with for this fall is to use a commercially available murder mystery party case. These are essentially role playing games, where each player is given a character to portray and they can trade information with each other both before and after the crime is committed.  The downloadable games contain all the pieces necessary to play and depending on the game can be run for as few as eight people or as many as 80 (more if people play as teams).

I like the role playing option because it’s highly interactive and requires the students to participate in gathering the information as well as analyzing it.  They also will not necessarily know when they have all the details of the case, which is more true to actual research, and can provide some interesting insights into ‘satisficing’ in this regard. The game could be a required element of the course or done entirely as extra credit.  My recommendation would be to require no more than participation in the exercise, and then award extra credit for correctly identifying the murderer, figuring out how the murder occurred, good game play, acting, and if you want, costumes.

Just remember that if you try something like this, the debriefing process afterward is essential to help students see the connection to the skills and content at stake–otherwise it will seem at best like a fun but pointless academic exercise.

If you try something like this (or have done already) I’m eager to hear about your experiences!

Surprise 2! A Simulation on Global Inequality

In the last week of my intro to IR course, another set of students took up the gauntlet laid down by the Statelessness group and did their own simulation.  This was a variation on the ‘hunger meal’ style simulation that has become fairly common: a group of people come to a meal and most are served a very tiny amount of food while a very few people get more food then they could possibly eat by themselves, allowing a discussion about hunger, global inequality, and aid.  I’ve been through several incarnations of this.  One involved spoonfuls of grits and boxes of Krispie Kreme doughnuts; another had people serve themselves from a buffet that was never refilled, and eventually ran out of food with people still waiting in line.

In this case, my students brought packs of candy bars–those packages that contain eight or ten individually wrapped Hershey bars or kit kats or Reeses peanut butter cups.


Each student in the class received a piece of paper with ten countries listed along with their respective GDPs.  The students then distributed the chocolate according to the share of global wealth each ten countries received.  So the top ten received about 60% of the chocolate (about 6 full packs of candy), the next ten 2 packs, and the rest received either individually wrapped chocolate bars, or, as they moved down the line, unwrapped squares or halves of squares.  The last person in the room had about 5 or 6 pieces of paper in his hands, but still only received two chocolates.

It made the abstract idea of inequality quite concrete.  It was 8 pm, after all, and 3 hours into a four hour class.  Chocolate was not only welcome, but quickly becoming necessary.

The students then led a discussion about how the students felt, whether  the wealthy students were obligated to give up some of their chocolate, and how they would convince the wealthy students to do so.  Violence entered the conversation (jokingly) at one point.  Eventually the discussion turned to the real-world implications, and the chocolate was widely shared.

Ultimately it was a rather informal simulation, with no preparation asked and no rules–more of a discussion with props.  But it was highly effective, keeping the students attention and helping them examine their own feelings and then apply them to the topic at hand.

One of my colleagues has her students create games to help them review for exams.  I’m tempted to try having my students all try to create some kind of game or simulation to explore topics in IR to see if they can be as generally effective as these two have been.

Are simulations discipline-specific?

As the result of a couple of writing projects I’m currently undertaking, the question of how discipline-specific simulations are has come into much sharper focus. Indeed, until a few weeks ago the question would have appeared to me to have had a self-evident answer and not merited discussion. However the number of times it has now come up suggest that some discussion might be useful.

Using all my best practice from my negotiation course, I start by putting myself in the shoes of others, who argue that simulations do display disciplinarity. This seems to fall into two categories.

Firstly, there is an argument that simulations are effectively limited to politics/IR. This comes from looking at simulations of assorted political institutions or events and thinking that there’s no real interest for anyone else in looking at such things (except maybe sociologists, anthropologists or business management types). That’s what most simulations are like, so how does it help me?

Secondly, there is the view that simulations do carry across disciplines, but they require fundamentally different approaches. Thus a law moot court is different from a simulation of the UN Security Council and both are different from a civil engineering project to manage the building of a dam. Each is looking at very different things and different materials.

You see a heart, I see gas clouds…

It might not be too much of a surprise for me to say that I disagree with both views.

In large part, this is an issue of nomenclature. ‘Simulation’ is rarely defined as a term and its boundaries with role-plays, games and other pedagogies is usually seen as a long road to no great effect. Thus, we tend to let the sleeping dog lie and hope everyone works it out themselves: like being in love, you know it when you see it.

Sadly, the consequence of this “let’s not discuss the matter” approach is that people actually have wildly different ideas about what constitutes a simulation. Certainly, if you think a simulation has to be of a real-world event or institution, discussing real-world materials, then that will radically limit the utility of the pedagogy.

My understanding of simulations (and the other approaches) is much broader. What ties them together is their effort to draw out some aspect of the real world and use it to create a limited environment within which players/students can understand the complexity of an issue or set of issues. It is that simplification to produce an environment for exploration that marks out the field.

Seen as such, the two view on disciplinarity also starts to look untenable: in all three cases given, there is simplification and scope of reaching a wide range of outcomes, dependent upon the players’ actions.

To see simulations as purely for politics/IR, or even for social sciences, is to lose sight of the need that all disciplines have to create models to test against both the real world and the attitudes of students. Whatever discipline one follows, you have a need to interact with other people (c.f. the civil engineering project) and you need to understand the complexity of phenomena (e.g. in physics).

Simulations do not all look like a Model United Nations, and the more we can understand that, the richer the possibilities of learning more from them will be.

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…

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.

World Without Oil: An Alternate Reality Game

A great resource for anyone teaching courses in environmental or energy politics, World Without Oil is an alternate reality game that took place in 2007, where participants imagined how their lives would change as a result of a steep increase in the price of oil, followed by a sharp decrease in supply over the course of 32 weeks.

The designers created ten lesson plans that use the material created during the game, all of them available at the game’s website.  There are some great tools here–videos, blogs, comics, news articles–to create the alternate reality of the game world, along with group activities, individual projects, discussion questions, and action items.  You can use as much or as little of the lesson plans as you like.

In lesson one, for example, students are introduced to the simulation by being told that gas has jumped to $4.12/gallon and that there are rumors of a shortage coming.  A video and comic entry accompany this news.  After reviewing some important concepts, students discuss how they will respond in groups and are then given some blog entries written by others to which they can compare their responses. In the ensuing group discussion, you can review and then quiz the students on the extent of petroleum use in the world economy.  Finally, students are asked to reflect by blogging their own intended reaction to the news about gas prices.

I’m using the game in my upper level seminar on Environmental and Energy Security as an extra credit project.  On Thursdays we learn how the oil shortage has progressed this week, do some of the related activities, and students earn extra points by writing blog entries documenting their own experiences on the course website.  I used it once before without the extra credit component and the students gave the exercises high marks. I’ve found that its a good way to get students talking about a global issue from a very local and individual perspective and that it therefore helps them see such connections in other topics in the course.

Evetrything I learnt about norms, I learnt from zombies…

I’ve finally succumbed to the virus that is zombie sims. As Dan Drezner has extensively developed, zombies sometimes appear to be as important in IR as realism, but until now I’ve stayed away, mainly because I mis-spent my youth reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, rather than watching ‘Dawn of the Dead.”

However, after discussion with my class last week, we agreed that we’d play one more game for our negotiation module, so it was an opportunity to do something more ‘fun’ with them, so I bit the bullet and went with a Zombie scenario that’s now up on my How To Do Simulation Games website.

The game is essentially one of disease control, with moral hazards thrown in: what do you do with the infected? how do you balance moving people out of danger with the risk of panic and spreading infection further?

For a game that I’ll freely admit was thrown together in short order, it went well, with different groups dealing with various aspects of a zombie outbreak, here in Guildford. My last-minute introduction of a crisis element, with a map that updates every 15 minutes, also helped to move things along and expose some new dimensions to the game-play, although I would want to think again about how that is used for next time. There was a certain levity to it – with Gary Barlow roped in to front TV specials on dealing with zombies, and nukes being discussed within the hour – but generally there was an interesting discussion that helped pull together much of what we’d covered in the module.

However, one aspect that did emerge was the role of norms and values. As one student put it in the debrief: “if you had just said it was a killer virus, then we wouldn’t have rushed towards killing them quite so quickly.”

Certainly, I did have the impression that the weight of popular culture around zombies (and it was instructive just how very much my students knew on the subject) did have an important role to play. This is, of course, why zombies can be a great learning tool, since they are fun and students have good knowledge of them, in various aspects.

But that weight of knowledge also shapes attitudes and action: one student who was playing on the ‘zombie rights’ sub-group turned out to be viscerally against any such rights, because her extensive knowledge of zombie movies told her that zombies simply couldn’t be trusted, and so have to die. The result was that ‘zombie rights’ didn’t go any further than the ‘right to die’!

Likewise, the willingness of students to kill any and all possibly infected individuals (they decided to cordon off the area and shoot anyone outside, regardless) was also linked to their pre-dispositions to zombies and the lack of realism of the scenario.

File:Foot and mouth disease in mouth.jpgOn the flip side, students did appreciate this aspect to their actions, but still felt that zombies were the way forward. One suggested we use a real disease – such as foot-and-mouth – which instantly brought much negative comment: certainly, I would struggle to enthuse students with the news that this might be the subject (oral blisters not being a ‘sexy’ topic).

So my zombie adventure continues. I’ve refined the game (including my first bespoke map on Google) for the website and I’m planning to move it into the main part of the teaching in the module next year. And so the meme continues to spread, relentlessly…