Educators and instructional designers share how they’re using simulations to inspire creativity, build community, and help students develop the soft skills they need for their careers

Simulated learning, real benefits


Educators and instructional designers share how they’re using simulations to inspire creativity, build community, and help students develop the soft skills they need for their careers

As a result of the remote learning experiment forced on students and instructors by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have been looking for tools and strategies to engage students no matter where they’re learning. One solution, educational simulations, was gaining traction before the pandemic thanks to its ability to encourage students to think critically, choose the best resolution to a problem, and set student decisions within the context of a community.

Here are a few examples of universities using simulations to help students build skills and prepare for careers.

Thinking critically about sentencing

Dr. Greg Koehle is a lead instructor in Colorado State University’s Global Campus criminal justice program, where he periodically works with instructional designers to revise courses. “Because they’re fully online and fully asynchronous, we try to make our courses as interactive as possible,” Koehle said.

In their Introduction to Criminal Justice course, Koehle worked with an instructional designer to create a lesson that covers intermediate sanctions, which are sentences such as house arrest, electronic monitoring, or diversionary programs.

Students learn what types of cases these sanctions are appropriate for, and then they engage in a simulation where they take on the role of the judge and are presented with a variety of offender stories. “There’s a first-time offender who embezzled $100,000 from their company,” Koehle explained, “a chronic DUI offender who is on their fifth or sixth offense and ended up in a crash and killed someone, and a violent offender with a significant criminal history, including a previous violent act, among others. In each of these situations, students select from a variety of intermediate sanctions and receive feedback on their choices.”

The choices are not clear-cut. More than one answer is often correct, and students must choose the one that is most appropriate for the situation. “It requires higher-order thinking because the student has to make an assessment. They have to apply the information they’ve learned to a specific context, rather than just regurgitating memorized information,” Koehle said. “We want students to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving and to be able to articulate their reasoning. That’s going to help them a lot more in the field than remembering certain facts.”

Learning from Dr. Frankenstein

One of the strengths of simulations, according to Koehle, is the way they bring narratives into the learning process, which engages more of the brain and helps students retain and understand information. Kelly Morris, the multimedia writer for program development at Western Governors University, takes narrative inclusion a step further and sometimes adapts fantastical but familiar characters from fiction into the simulations he creates.

eSchool Media Contributors