teacher hands students numbers

In today’s post, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Jenni Carr considers the impact using real world simulations in the classroom can have on student learning.

My most valuable learning experience as an undergraduate was participating in a simulation, organised as part of a residential event. I wouldn’t have known then to call this collection of activities ‘a simulation’, but even then I recognised that this wasn’t just good fun, but that I was learning to apply knowledge that had previously seemed bounded within the context of books and journal articles.

Question Time

The simulation focused on producing an episode of Question Time. We were divided into teams representing foundational theoretical frameworks – the Marxist Party, the feminist party etc. – and the game designer (in this instance our lecturer) gave a list of current affairs topics to research. Our task was to draw on our current understanding of the theoretical frameworks to:

  • Design and carry out an information search using library resources (this was pre-Google) that would inform our responses to questions posed by the audience
  • Use this research to write briefing notes that the panel member representing our team could use
  • Design questions relating to the current affairs topics that could be asked of the panel. The key here was that the questions had to be aimed at promoting debate between the panel members, testing our understanding of the contrasting elements of the frameworks

We selected one member of the team to be the panel member – a daunting role! Other members of the team formed part of the audience. In line with the actual programme, the questions were submitted in advance. If called upon, we needed to be prepared to ask the question and respond to any follow-up questions from the game leader. The game leader was a lecturer from another course acting as the Question Time host, leaving our lecturer free to make notes that they would use for assessment and feedback.

Our ‘Question Time’ was played out in the evening so that other students could attend, giving a more authentic feel to the audience. It was staged in a lecture hall, complete with lights and camera recording the event. This staging is what sets simulations apart from other game-based or enquiry-based learning.

Simon Usherwood (University of Surrey) states: “in simple terms, a simulation is a recreation of a real-world situation, designed to explore key elements of that situation”. Whilst there may be other ways to structure a debate or discussion between students, using the context of an episode of Question Time to shape the desired outcomes of our preparatory work extended the range of skills we had to learn or deploy. Although only one member of the team had to be onstage as a panellist, the skills of the whole team – information literacy, teamwork, communication skills and critical thinking – were under the spotlight. Perhaps most significantly, I feel, the relationships developed through the process extended beyond the simulation itself.

So that all sounds like a lot of work!

Some complex simulations do take a great deal of work. If you would like to try something along similar lines I can recommend the good practice guide written by Simon Usherwood. In this guide Simon outlines how you can use simulations, the core design principles, and possible problems and their solutions. Although the focus of the guide is on teaching politics, the ideas can be adapted for use within any discipline.

What I want to focus on here are some thoughts I had during the PG Cert teaching observations I have carried out this year. Often a great deal of thought has been put into preparing activities that try and draw out students’ understanding of materials they have read, or the lectures they have attended. These activities, often done in groups, usually end with the students feeding back to the whole class, and at this point I would find myself thinking about how some sort of context to shape the nature of this feedback would encourage further student engagement.

A couple of examples to illustrate what I mean. I observed one lesson where students explored the pros and cons of charitable foundations in health projects and research, and then demonstrated their understanding by thinking about how they could set up their own foundation. If this had been a simulation, students could have been assigned specific roles within the foundation, written a constitution and produced a press release. Other students could have been assigned roles within the media. The culmination of the simulation could be staged as a press conference.

In another instance a teacher had compiled a great deal of background information on the provision of elderly care in a particular context. This encouraged the students to view the issue from a number of different perspectives. Students came together for a round-table discussion, ‘representing’ different sides of the argument. I think a simulation, however, focusing on a bidding process to decide on care providers, again with students being asked to adopt very specific roles, would have given the learning a real-life flavour.

Adapting activities to introduce simulation

In the guide mentioned above, Simon points out that simulations can be used in such diverse teaching and learning contexts that it is not  useful to outline one set of rules for their design. He does, however, highlight three general principles that help you plan and deliver simulations. I think these three principles can also be helpful for thinking about how you can adapt teaching and learning activities that you already use.

  • Clear learning objectives

If reframing activities as part of a simulation you will need to revisit the associated learning objectives. In addition to wanting students to demonstrate their understanding, you will need to create objectives that highlight the other skills they will be demonstrating – teamwork, communication and so on. These can then be linked explicitly to the various elements of the simulation so the students can see a clear purpose to this activity.

  • Alignment of learning objectives, gameplay and assessment

Reviewing learning objectives will also help you think through what information and resources you need to provide to the students to ensure that the simulation itself runs effectively. It is difficult for students to immerse themselves in a simulation if at certain points they are confused about what they should be doing and what the outcome should be.

When thinking about formative assessment throughout a course we can be guilty of focusing more on the form of the summative assessment that will follow, rather than the skills students will need to complete that assessment successfully. Students, too, can be under the impression that form is more important than content. However, if the skills students are going to be asked to demonstrate in the essay  include things like critical evaluation, selection of evidence and the structuring of an argument, simulations can be really effective preparation, provided the rationale is explained carefully to students.

  • Providing feedback

Feedback, as we know, is something that students often say could be improved. It is quite difficult to give feedback recognised as such by the students when they are simply reporting back to the whole class on small group discussions. This is a point in the lesson when the teacher tends to be ‘front and centre’ – writing up key points on the whiteboard, trying to extend students’ contributions, being asking questions, correcting misunderstandings.

Given the more structured nature of simulations it is possible to build in more opportunities for developing feedback, including peer feedback. In his guide Simon provides a sample feedback form. You might prefer an online system, such as TeamMates.

We will be running a workshop on using simulations in the classroom as part of the Atlas academic development programme for next year. If you would like to discuss aspects of introducing simulations before then, please do get in touch on tlc@lse.ac.uk!

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