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Simulation Training: What Is it and Where Is it Most Effective?

Simulations are capable of providing learning and assessment opportunities no other modality can. Here’s a quick primer.

By David McCool

Online learning has seen explosive growth over the last few years as a result of the pandemic. Simulation training and assessment have grown right along with it. From assessing soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving to practicing complex challenges that occur in the workplace and encouraging the development of empathy for others, simulations enable educators to teach and assess learning in ways never before possible.

What is it and how does it work?

In an educational setting, simulations can be used as assessments or as learning activities featuring interactive dialogue, text, video, audio, or other assets. Requiring students to move beyond passive content consumption, simulations challenge students with difficult situations in a safe environment. By stepping into the role of a nurse, for example, a student can cognitively rehearse a hard conversation with a patient. Or, by role-playing as historical figures, students can gain an appreciation for the difficult choices that have come to shape the world they live in today.

However they’re used, simulations allow students to actively participate in a challenging scenario by combining the material they are learning with soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the success two organizations had using simulations to develop their staff. In the first example, managing directors used simulations to learn when to work with other managing directors, how much to charge for projects, and how to properly staff project teams—skills that are typically learned on the job. With gaming principles embedded in the simulations, the directors found the training engaging and compelling, often returning to simulations again and again to give different answers in an attempt to understand why the correct answers were correct. In the end, about nine in 10 managing directors reported better understanding of their responsibilities, along with improved decision-making skills and abilities to work with other business lines.

A recent article at notes that simulations may be the best alternative to in-person on-the-job training, particularly when it comes to technical, problem-solving, and communication skills, and identifies four main types of simulation learning, including:

  • Interactive web-based simulations, such as online science labs;
  • Game-based simulations, which incorporate elements of gaming to increase engagement and motivation while asking users to apply skills and knowledge for educational outcomes;
  • In-person simulations, which usually take place at special facilities and include specialized equipment such as a flight simulator; and
  • Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality simulations, which may require nothing more than an app on the user’s phone, or may use a virtual reality headset to immerse a user within a simulated reality.

Where has it gone from inception to now?

Game-based learning (GBL), perhaps the most familiar form of educational simulation, has grown in popularity in recent years. In a report funded by the Gates Foundation, researchers found that educators saw promise in GBL’s ability to deliver complex challenges to students to develop or assess skills such as application and analysis. It allows students to safely learn skills by trial and error, role-playing opportunities involving real-world problems. Real-time feedback and multiplayer interaction help students develop communication and community-building skills, as well.

Challenges that have prevented wider adoption include the cost of creating custom GBL experiences, an inability for educators to author GBL activities, the difficulty of assessing them at scale, and technical support challenges. New simulation authoring tools address many of these concerns, however, and enable educational organizations to create or adopt simulations to meet various needs by pairing the appropriate type of simulation with the desired learning outcomes.

The pandemic has spurred an increase in demand for simulations, leading to a 260% year-on-year growth in simulations delivered by Muzzy Lane. Rather than a spike, that uptick is likely to continue, given the trend toward skill-based learning and hiring, which simulations are well-suited to develop and assess.

In an article at Getting Smart, Don Fraser of Education Design Lab explains how simulations are effective at measuring soft skills because they can recreate scenarios common to the workplace, yet are still able to be assessed automatically, saving teachers time and the need to become experts in fields like critical thinking or intercultural fluency.

A couple years ago, I had the chance to chat with instructional designers creating simulations for various schools at Herzing University. They told me how they were designing simulations to help students master their material and prepare for the interpersonal aspects of their careers, as well. For nursing students, for example, designers would create recurring characters who showed up over and over again in simulations, giving students the opportunity to see how various health challenges interact and complicate one another or even predict illnesses, just as nurses would in a real doctor’s office. Another Herzing designer, recognizing that everyone in the IT school will eventually be looking for a job in IT, said she baked the kinds of social skills employers will be looking for into the simulations she designed.

Why is it the most effective learning and assessment tool?

Simulations are fun, so students stick with them over time. Kelly Morris, a multimedia author at Western Governors University wrote in Campus Technology about how he created a simulation that took place in a vampire bar to cover different blood types, and an anatomy lesson in which students would have to figure out which organ Frankenstein’s monster needed to have reattached.

Excelsior University turned to simulations to offer students learning experiences outside of the text-heavy assignments common to distance learning. Anna Zendell, a senior faculty program director at the School of Graduate Studies explained how simulations create rich learning experiences for students pursuing master’s degrees in health science that incorporate various challenges their patients are likely to face. In an exercise focused on diet, students were asked to shop for a family of four for four days with a budget of only $25. Because the parents in the simulation worked, the food had to be easy enough for a teenager to prepare. The family relied on public transportation, so meals had to be easily carried on the bus. The hypothetical grandmother’s loose dentures meant everything had to be easy to chew, and parents with hypertension and diabetes further restricted the available options. Zendell said that students learned that a poor diet is not always a matter of choice and, more importantly, they developed an empathy for people facing health challenges and poverty that they carried through their time in the program.

Simulations offer relatable, accessible, and customizable learning experiences for students regardless of demographics, skill, or education level. While they can be used to increase engagement through use of gaming techniques, they also provide experiential learning opportunities in safe environments and solve many of the challenges of assessing and credentialing soft skills that are indispensable in the job market.

David McCool is president and CEO of Muzzy Lane, a company that was recently awarded 1EdTech™ ‘s 2022 Gold Learning Impact Award for their work on the XCredit project. He was previously involved in the founding of two successful startups, Shiva Corporation and Aptis Communications. He graduated from MIT with a BSEE in 1987. He can be reached at [email protected] or LinkedIn.