Designing simulations

Simulation is a great way to teach and a great way to learn almost anything. From the most abstract concepts to the most practical and applied procedure, there is a role for simulation in learning. We know this because numerous educational studies have confirmed that well-designed sim activities have a beneficial effect on our learning.

This guidance is written largely for academic staff, but versions of it could be written for professional practitioners, students and administrative and technical staff as well. All have a part to play in the development of sim activities. Indeed without the participation of all these groups and more, sim development would not just be impoverished - it would be pretty well impossible. Simulation is an inclusive and democratic mode of learning: all of us play a necessary part in each other's learning.

Simulation learning can involve almost any activity.


 Three examples of well-designed sim activities
  • The International Journal of..
    Are your learners undergraduates who need to learn the discourse of your discipline? Why not start an online journal which has a peer-review system built into it, carried out by students and monitored by staff, where students submit essays, are given feedback and redraft their work for publication...
  • The Inheritance Principle
    Hasok Chang has organised the publication of a book on science that was written by series of student cohorts. Students thus learned what it was to do research, to write it up, redraft one's own work, and redraft the work of others, as well as curating that work for future students and editors.
  • A law firm's simulations
    One large City of London law firm ran simulated legal transactions with its newly-qualified lawyers so that the trainees would quickly learn how to do specific transactions. The sims enabled the lawyers to learn intensively in a short space of time, and cut down the amount of time that mentors had to spend with them on matters such as specific points of substantive law and procedure.

In this brief and practical introduction to simulation we'll be looking at the following aspects of simulation design:

1. Types of teaching and learning that facilitate sims

We'll begin with the types of teaching and learning that suit sims. Without going into categories of teaching too much, we can distinguish between conventional teacher-centred teaching and learner-centred learning. Think of them as poles or extremes of activities. Teacher-centred teaching focuses attention on the teacher, who will often be the centre of disseminated information, who will pre-structure learning events, control the pace of them, the outcome, decide on what's good quality learner response, what's not, decide who passes and who doesn't. Learning is often, though not always, highly structured. Assessment will be conventional memory tests such as closed-book exams. You get the picture. We've all had teachers like this. Some were outstanding, utterly memorable. Some were not.

Contrast this with the opposite pole, where teachers are facilitators, who set up situations in which learners explore information and piece together their understandings of a discipline or subject, often in a way that's close to how practitioners do things in practice, whatever practice that happens to be. Teachers here are no longer the centres of attention. They've moved to the side, become no less important to learning, but are quieter, intervening when needed by learners. Learners and their process of learning take centre-stage. There will be different modes of learning available, and often collaborative work by students. Assessment will probably not be the usual diet of examination and essay/ report. Instead there will be focused assessments of knowledge and skills, and activities that take place in learning zones that are also assessment zones.

These poles are really caricatures of the complexity of teaching and learning, but they serve a purpose. Think about organising a simulation in the teacher-centred mode. It's always going to be difficult to plan and implement in that context. Student expectations would be for centralised dissemination, given the rest of the module or subject, and they would be baffled by the sudden change in what they were expected to do. The work would be quite different to its context. Assessment would be strikingly different, too, to the conventional assessments used.

On a module where there is already facilitated learning rather than directed teaching (for example, where small-group work and collaborative work is used), the expectations of staff and students would be closer to a simulation environment. The context would be more student-centred, and as a consequence it would be easier to embed simulations.

2. Structuring learner activity

If simulations are to be successful activities, they need to be designed so as to support learning within the sims. There are a surprising number of ways that this can be done. Here are designs for just some of them:

  1. Lectures - seminars - sims - assessment
    A course could be organised so that lectures are delivered, which then feed into a seminar series, where there is more detailed work on the topics outlined in the lectures. Lectures could be delivered as f2f, or as web- or podcasts. The work of the seminars is then organised so that the seminars preview the tasks that learners carry out in the simulation, which extends pretty much the length of the module. This design is well-organised, and you may find that if the simulation is part of the assessment of learner skills and knowledge, it becomes the focus of student attention to quite a powerful extent. Largely f2f, though of course it could be designed to be entirely online, or any model in-between.
  2. Lectures - sims - lab work - report
    After delivery of lectures the sims are used to outline to learners the chemical/ biological/ engineering processes, possibly also the procedures, that they will take further in the lab, and on which they will report in their lab notebooks. Largely f2f.
  3. Intro lecture - sim - supporting resources & surgeries - feedback sessions
    This model is quite different. After an initial introduction learners are plunged into the sim. They are supported by resources and by small-group sessions with a tutor or supervisor. They are given feedback on their assessment within a lecture, and one-to-one as a group, should they wish it.

All three models embed sims within more conventional teaching and learning environments. However there is a spectrum. Model 1 ties learner work quite tightly into the structure of other interventions and events. Model 3 is quite different, where students take the initiative much more, where they take responsibility for accessing resources, and where there is much less staff control, either through tutorials or lectures. Indeed, note that most of the formal furniture of academic teaching is absent from this model.

One final point about simulation teaching and learning. No matter how sophisticated and detailed they are, sims are always constructed worlds in which learners carry out activities. Such activities nearly always require some kind of debrief, either within the world or outside of it. The debrief can consist of comment on performance, discussion, feedback, reflective commentary and the like. It is nearly always dialogic, and analyses the performance of learners. It can be a powerful way of establishing and reinforcing learners' understanding and confidence.

These three models above are only three of many. They key thing is to:

  • think out the design in advance
  • plan it out on paper, linking the various teaching and learning elements of your course
  • talk it over with colleagues, better still folk who have done this work before
  • plan the form of debrief your learners will experience

3. Assessment and integration of tasks and transactions

There are almost as many ways to integrate assessment of simulation as to teach or learn with it. Here are some of the varieties:

  1. Tasks (e.g. drafting a document, letter-writing, research)
  2. Whole file + performative skill
  3. Tasks + whole file
  4. Tasks + whole file + performative skill

In more detail...

  1. Tasks (e.g. drafting a document, letter-writing, research)
    • The assessment design might set out the context of the assessment for learners - perhaps that is something that learners might be asked to figure out for themselves.
    • The task itself might be described - in how much detail?
    • You might want to design feedforward, i.e. guidance on task.
    • Will there be support in the form of templates if the task is drafting a document?
    • Will you give examples with commentaries?
    • What deadlines will you set?
    • Will you give feedback on task in role?
    • What sort of debrief will you design for learners and staff?
  2. Whole file + performative skill
    This could involve a holistic assessment of a document chain that is created by learners. The document chain or file constitutes the body of evidence, but you could, if you wish, embed critical points of assessment, for example, a report to client, a speech plan, etc. It can include preparation by learners for performative skills, for example, in law, learners may need to carry out legal research before they engage in professional negotiation.
  3. Tasks + whole file
    Specific tasks are the foreground of this design - for instance, learners could be required to draft or write a specific document. But in addition to this the tasks and whole file need to be completed successfully.
  4. Tasks + whole file + performative skill
    This is a more complex but also a more comprehensive assessment. It consists of assessment types 1-3 above, plus more - for example, the performative skill can be assessed in role.

In conventional teaching and learning there is often a separation of learning zone from assessment zone, both physically (e.g. examinations held under invigilated conditions, in exam halls) and also separate in time (exams occurring at or near the end of a course of study). But in simulations, learning support and assessment can be interleaved, where one develops and enhances the other. This may seem to contradict what assessment is - the test of skill or knowledge. But well designed, it can act as a much more powerful learning zone precisely because the learner knows that his or her performance is being tracked and assessed at particular points.

  The Personal Injury Negotiation transaction is an example of interleaved support and assessment. The PI Mentor passes information in real time, plays all fictional roles including PI senior partner (instructs praises, warns, and could if required be ethically treacherous). If the whole file is being assessed, then learners' responses to the PI Mentor's documentation are being assessed. The Surgery Mentor gives detailed feedforward on task - learner dialogue in this is not assessed. The discussion forum, where tutors give detailed feedforward on task, is not assessed either. Finally the firm's Practice Manager (another tutor) gives coaching on the firm's experiences, in role. This support and coaching is not assessed.

Perhaps the most ambitious form of simulative assessment is where an entire transaction is simulated, and learners take the role of a professional completing the transaction. The transaction can be 'blueprinted' at any level of complexity, from the relatively novice levels of a first year undergraduate student, to a trainee or newly-qualified professional to a highly experienced practitioner undergoing specialist accreditation or some such.

4. Catching the drift

All disciplines have their ways of experiencing and analyzing the world. Part of learning the discipline in universities and schools is learning the discourse. This isn't learned in a couple of essays or exams. It's learned over a period of time, by the process of saturation in the discipline.

Simulations are excellent opportunities to catch the drift of a discipline, and to inhabit, from the inside as it were, the attitudes, values, ways of apprehending the world that practitioners have. If we were to analyse this process a little more precisely we might describe it as the acquisition and development by learners of the shared set of terms - effectively, the external representations that provide a common ground for communication and shared understanding between learners, teachers, trainers and between professionals.

There is extensive literature on this process in medical education. In a series of experiments on the role of biomedical knowledge in clinical reasoning, for instance, Boshuizen and Schmidt (1992) have shown that experts acquire a robust knowledge base that integrates situated and general knowledge. Knowledge integration is an active process that involves articulating a global framework (the biomedical knowledge), reflecting on situated experiences (individual cases as they are encountered), and actively making connections between situated knowledge and the global framework.

This is also true of the legal domain. A lawyer in private practice will see something in the order of many thousands of cases in a working life. Through the experience of casework, she gains an extensive stock of what might be termed mental schemas and performance knowledge. Solicitors know this implicitly. When presented with a set of facts within their area of practice they are able quite quickly to invoke a schema and can test this initial schema against the evidence(See for instance the data collected regarding the practice of radiologists, in Lesgold et al (1989)). Lesgold suggests that, in the process of becoming an expert, a trainee acquires fragments of automatised procedure that gradually become integrated into extended sequences that guide performance. These sequences are formed often quite slowly from practice through the composition of fragments of activity. The process can be made much more efficient, though, if students are:

  • taught to begin the process of case pattern recognition.
  • taught the procedures explicitly, as a list of steps towards problem identification and solution

These two forms of learning can bring trainees to a practical knowledge of the typical transactions within a discipline much more efficiently if learning is carried out via simulation and transaction. In this respect what is true of biomedicine and radiology and many other professional domains is equally true of legal practice.

If catching the drift is important for learners, it's also important for staff learning to use simulations. What are the best designs for simulation? There is no one royal road, and there is much literature about which methods are effective for which skills and in which teaching environments and stages of learning. See for example Taverner et al. (2000) or Eaton and Cottrell (1999, 20) who point out that there is 'some evidence to support the hypothesis that different teaching techniques may be more effective for improving different elements of skills learning. In particular, a highly structured technique involving breaking complex tasks down into smaller components and utilising an internal 'commentary' may be an effective way of teaching the sequential motor components of complex clinical skills.

Whatever method is used, it ought to be highly experiential and include elements such as role-plays, case studies, structured learning opportunities, prompted recall, detailed analysis of achievements and performance problems in skill practice and the like. The above discussion is really only a start.