What are Instructional Simulations?

When students use a model of behavior to gain a better understanding of that behavior, they are doing a simulation. For example:

  • When students are assigned roles as buyers and sellers of some good and asked to strike deals to exchange the good, they are learning about market behavior by simulating a market.
  • When students take on the roles of party delegates to a political convention and run the model convention, they are learning about the election process by simulating a political convention.
  • When students create an electric circuit with an online program, they are learning about physics theory by simulating an actual physical set-up.

Students often use simulations to make predictions about the social, economic, or natural world.

What Differentiates this Teaching Method?

The key element that differentiates instructional simulation from other pedagogies is the formal specification of a conceptual structure with which students interact to learn about relationships between concepts.

Different Disciplines have Different Simulations

Every discipline treats the conceptual structure of the simulation differently. To economists, the conceptual structure is typically mathematical. In other words, simulation involves the specification of a mathematical model that is solved several times with different parameters to reveal relationships and illustrate concepts. To sociologists, the conceptual structure is typically sets of social interactions. To political scientists, the conceptual structure is often institutional.

Simulations Vary in Style and Complexity

Simulations may use computer programs that require only a portion of a single class period. More commonly, computer models require that students complete several assignments taking significant time or indeed even a large part of a course. Simulations range from attempts to duplicate complex social processes, such as a legislature, to very simple social interactions, such as making eye contact. These simulations may be conducted with computers, pencil-and-paper, or physical models of some natural phenomenon. Some work only with small classes. Some work with all class sizes.