These strategies can help educators gets the most out of educational simulations for both teaching and assessing students’ skills.

4 keys to building excellent educational simulations

These four strategies can help educators gets the most out of these powerful tools for both teaching and assessing students’ skills

During the pandemic, I have seen increasing interest in educational simulations. It makes sense. As students moved online, instructors needed new ways to assess the skills they were learning. At the same time, teachers were scrambling to shift their lesson plans and instructional delivery to support remote learning on top of their normal work, so they needed tools that were “auto-assessable.”

Educational simulations did seem like they were created to meet the needs of the moment when the whole country was suddenly thrust into remote learning, but they are excellent tools for assessing complex arrays of inter-related skills in in-person courses, too–and can even be powerful and deep learning experiences on their own.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you—and your students—are getting the most out of educational simulations.

1. Build individual skills into larger tasks.

In the search for an automatically assessible tool to measure student learning, the traditional fallback has been multiple-choice tests. On the surface, many simulations may not look much different. They often include many of the same item types, such as selecting from a list of possible answers, selecting all that apply, matching items, drag-and-drop, categorization, and more. These kinds of structured answers are what allow simulations to be auto-assessable.

The magic is in structuring them properly, ensuring different items relate to one another in meaningful ways, and providing the appropriate context and information for students to work within.

In a multiple-choice assessment in a marketing class, for example, a student might get 10 questions about various bits of information they’ve learned throughout the course. They’re not going to apply any skills. They’re just going to regurgitate some information they’ve crammed for the exam.

If, on the other hand, you give them information about a product they need to launch and the market they’ll enter, a simulation can then give them a series of decisions to make as they pursue that larger task. They need to price their product, pick a target market segment, analyze data about that segment, select a messaging vehicle to reach them, decide what kind of message will appeal to them, and put all those pieces together.

Each of those steps is structured and individually assessable, but the student has done something much deeper at the end than answer 10 unrelated questions. They’ve synthesized the concepts they’re learning with the information specific to the challenge they’re trying to solve, analyzed their options, and applied their new skills to a complex problem.

2. Immerse students in problem-solving situations.

One of the strengths of simulations is that they immerse students in problem-solving situations. High student engagement is one of the most important characteristics of a good educational simulation. That means students need to be active and making choices. One of the most common mistakes I see people making when they first switch from writing textbooks to writing simulations is the wall of text—it’s more effective to allow students to interact than to overwhelm them with a number of text bubbles.

For simulations, we often need to situate the student within the context of the problem to be solved with some information. Good sims do that fast and get right to the point of asking students to make decisions.

3. Provide students both goals and constraints.

One of my favorite recent simulations was made by Education Design Lab. It’s a capstone simulation designed to assess critical thinking called “Save the Museum.” Students step into the role of a consultant who has been brought in to help save a struggling museum in Springfield, Illinois. They have to recommend one of three ad campaigns to promote a new exhibit after interviewing museum staff, reading about the history of the museum, looking at the demographics of the town, exploring funding sources, and more.

It takes about 25-30 minutes to complete, but it assesses students on a range of subcompetencies—recognizing bias as they gather information from museum workers and townspeople, for example—without ever explicitly telling them they’re being tested on them. It brings in these different strands and assesses skills in a synthesized, more natural way.

The three answers they can choose from at the end are all plausible. None of them are obviously wrong and, in fact, they all may be correct answers in a slightly different context. The way students ferret out which one is correct in this context is by analyzing the information they dig up throughout the simulation. They’re constrained by the facts on the ground to the point that only one answer remains. Great simulations are like great games in that they offer a goal and then place constraints on the user’s ability to meet that goal.

4. Know your goal.

Educational simulations can be fantastic vehicles for developing students’ skills as well as assessing what they can already do. Some schools have even used our authoring tool to create simulations designed to help students develop different kinds of empathy.

Knowing your goal before you begin creating your simulation is critical. If you’re building a teaching tool, you’ll want to build in lots of remediation and feedback. You probably want to let students loop back when they make incorrect answers—or even when they make correct answers, in the spirit of exploration. You’ll want to ensure that students leave each part of the simulation with the right answer.

If you’re designing a summative assessment, on the other hand, there shouldn’t be any safety net at all. If the student doesn’t have the skill, they should fail.

Using backward design principles is key here. What skills are you trying to test? What skills do you want your students to have at the end of the simulation? Educators who answer those questions and then work backwards will generally create great simulations.

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