Simulations: Pedagogical Tips

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1. Keep it Simple

This is the most important point to remember! It is really easy to get caught in producing something complicated and involved, but when you are starting out, start small. You can make a simple simulation that does not require any great demands on you or your students, try it out so that you can get more comfortable with the practice of using it, and then add more elements to it. If you are not comfortable with it, then you will find it hard to explain to students, or to reassure them, and you are also less likely to try it again. Remember that even simple simulations produce a lot of rich learning opportunities, so you will not be depriving yourself on that front.

2. Know what you’re trying to do

This is a big truism of all learning and teaching, but one that is easily forgotten. When putting together a simulation, it is essential that you do not loose sight of the central purpose of the exercise, its learning objective. Typically, this should be something focused, either a piece of substantive knowledge (e.g. a concept) or skills development (e.g. negotiation). As you build a simulation around this objective, remember to keep checking that this is still clearly achieved. This is essential if you to be able to communicate this to students, both through the simulation and the subsequent feedback.

3. Have confidence in students’ ability to work things out for themselves

A big fear in using simulations is that you do not have control of what happens: instead, you set out a scenario and let students work their own way through that. More often than not, they will do something unexpected, or in a way that you had not foreseen. This is a good thing, because it helps to expose the many different ways that we can tackle such issues in social science. You just need to have confidence that students will be able to sort things out for themselves. In short, it is committing to a ‘no spoon-feeding’ position.

4. Connect the simulation to the rest of students’ learning experience

Avoid making a simulation an ‘end of module’ thing, a ‘bit of fun’ to fill an hour. Instead, make connections back into students’ prior knowledge, across into their learning within the rest of the module, and ahead into the rest of their studies. This means giving feedback and drawing out lessons for students.

5. Always feedback

One of the worst things you can do with a simulation is to just run it, then leave it. As underlined on the previous point, without feedback, students can find it hard to relate their experience within a simulation with the other things that they do in their studies. When giving feedback, always start by finding out what they have learned, and only then talk about what you observed: it is important to underline the value of their

6. Keep track of what’s happening

You can only give meaningful feedback if you closely follow what is happening. This is especially true if you are giving marks for participation, but holds regardless of whether there is assessment. Remember that it is very hard to follow more than a handful of people at once over any period of time, so think about capturing what happens with video, audio or online technologies.

7. Does it take longer to explain than to play?

If this happens, then you’ve lost your focus. Ideally, a simulation should be simple to explain and learn, but complex in its operation and outcomes. A good tip here is to think about what is causing the complexity, then throwing it all out or finding an analogous, or a more abstract situation. Remember that in simulations, the focus should be on students, not you.

8. Remember your constraints on time and space

A sad truth is that we often have to work with constraints on our time and rooming, so you need to take account of this when building a simulation. Indeed, you can use this to force yourself to think more creatively about how to meet your objectives within those constraints. Remember that if you need to do something ‘big’ you might split it up into smaller elements that will fit more easily into a timetable.

9. Play it again

Some of the most rewarding experiences as an instructor using simulations come when taking the same simulation and running it again, with different people. It really exposes the role of human agency, a key concern of all social sciences, and gives us another layer of analysis and feedback. You might even consider running a simulation twice with the same students, to let them see how they change. Playing a simulation again also let’s you build it up and add new aspects.

10. Share your ideas and your experience

The sheer variety of forms and types of simulations is one of the great attractions of this approach, but also a barrier. If you can share your experiences and ideas, then others can see new ways into their own teaching needs, and you can get feedback on what you have done.