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Why Teach with Simulations?

Deep Learning

Instructional simulations have the potential to engage students in "deep learning" that empowers understanding as opposed to "surface learning" that requires only memorization. A good summary of how deep learning contrasts with surface learning is given at the Engineering Subject Centre: Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning. Deep learning means that students:

Learn scientific methods including

Learn to reflect on and extend knowledge by

Simulation Works

Simulations are among the most often used pedagogies in industry and government.

While cost constraints limit the large scale simulations found in the corporate environment, Hertel and Millis (2002) argue that much of what is successful outside of the academy can be extended to undergraduate instruction with careful curriculum development. Their extensive work with simulation in the Department of Defense suggests a series of steps to ensure simulations bridge the gap between theory and reality in ways that are meaningful to students. While much of their evidence for the success of simulations is generated by matching simulation curriculum with deep and active leaning features, their suggestion that successful simulations force instructors to have refined curricular goals that are made clear to students in writing is clearly a necessary condition for the student learning goals given in the preceding section.

More directly focused on learning theory, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) develop general pedagogical prescriptions that work well with instructional simulations. Changing routine experts into adaptive experts requires that students learn how to transfer knowledge to new problems and situations. Simulations also can make students aware of their own thought processes and how they arrive at conclusions.

Finally, Porter et. al. (2004) summarize what is known about the learning effectiveness of simulations in economics principles courses. Their general conclusion is that simulation either makes no difference or a small amount of positive difference. There are suggestions in the various economics studies, however, that instructional simulations may be more effective for some students than the general results suggest.

Given these findings, an instructor thinking about how to improve the critical thinking of his or her students should find instructional simulations a valuable tool. The findings also suggest that upper-division courses that structure the curriculum in terms of scientific inquiry are tailor made for instructional simulations.

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