Teaching Strategies

Simulations and Role-Play

What are simulations?

The CTE defines simulations as “interactive experiences designed to teach students particular content or competencies by having them engage directly with the information or the skills being learned in a simulated authentic challenge”.

‘Active learning’ is a pedagogical approach which engages students cognitively and metacognitively in meaningful learning activities. Students are expected to read, write, reflect, discuss and actively participate in higher-order thinking tasks such as application, analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Active learning can work in almost any setting and takes many forms, from briefly structured discussions that require minimal planning to high-stakes assignments that might be done in stages and require intensive planning.

Some effective active learning strategies include questioning, discussion, drama, debates, demonstrations, role play and simulation, experimentation, and peer teaching and learning. Along with teaching and learning strategies, providing appropriate assessment and constructive feedback are absolutely critical to students’ success as active learners.

What makes simulations different from the other active learning experiences outlines above? Simulations are different for several reasons.

  1. Firstly, they are located in a specific situation or scenario that represents an authentic challenge from the discipline.
  2. Secondly, they are scaffolded learning experiences with guiding principles, specific rules, norms, and structured relationships that can vary from detailed and complex to basic and simple.
  3. Thirdly, a structured debrief process is built into the experience.

Simulations, then, are defined by how they teach students (purposefully structured scenario concluded by a reflective debrief process) and by what they teach students (active participation in discipline-specific process and/or the demonstration of discipline-specific skills).


Why use simulations?

Simulations are a particularly useful teaching strategy for instructors who want to help their students:

  1. Understand complex processes or concepts which must be directly applied in order to be fully comprehended
  2. Develop the advanced skills necessary for mastering any discipline


How do simulations help student learning?

Authentic Scenarios: Simulations provide students with chance to achieve learning goals and develop their skills in a purposeful and authentic challenge within their discipline. Because simulations strive to replicate the complexity and unpredictability of real-world contexts, they challenge students to use critical thinking in the moment and to pull relevant expertise from a wide variety of concepts and skills.

A Flexible Tool: Simulations can run in concert with lectures and other course work. Instead of relying only on traditional writing-based assessments, simulations offer an alternate opportunity to reinforce, introduce or assess key content and concepts in an engaging and active way.

Facilitate Success: The structured learning space of a simulation, with its clearly outlined rules and norms, frees students to focus on achieving learning goals without fear of failure.

Create Excitement: Simulations are fun! They generate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm as students engage with a new form of instruction. Motivation is a key aspect of student learning success.


When Simulations won’t work:

  • You should consider active learning alternatives to simulations: if you have no time, if your course schedule cannot spare the time, if your physical classroom space is too constrained, if your discipline doesn’t have an applicable hands-on challenge, or if another less labor intensive learning activity achieves the same learning goals.