The Educator’s Guide to Teaching with Digital Simulations

All games are not created equal, and many resources that are commonly referred to as games are actually digital simulations or interactive models. The difference isn’t just a matter of semantics: each of these three tools have a unique purpose and benefit for students:

  • Simulations are Dynamic representations that allow students to form and test mental models by experimentation, offering a safe place to tinker and experiment with systems to which students might otherwise not have access.
  • Interactive models are visualizations that allow students to actively explore rich information on a topic
  • Games often combine and expand on these elements with compelling ways and reasons to engage with the tool and inspire students to develop mastery of the material

In this post, we’ll explore how you can best use simulations to support student learning.

What a Simulation Is (and Isn’t)

Simulations are dynamic representations that allow students to form and test mental models by experimentation. They work best as a teacher-guided inquiry tool. Many great games are based on simulations (often called simulation-games) but simulations aren’t necessarily games. The difference is subtle but does have implications for classroom use. Simulations are awesome tools that allow the player to form and test hypotheses about how the systems works. However, unlike a good game, there are generally no goals to drive engagement, and there may be less scaffolding or tutorial hints to help the student understand the tool’s interface or the represented system. While simulations are very powerful tools for learning and engagement, they often require more guidance from the teacher. To ensure transfer of student’s in-game learning, critical reflection on the game experience in small groups or as a class is very important.

How to Introduce a Simulation to Your Class

You can reasonably expect to let the kids explore the simulation on their own at first, followed by a group or teacher-led reflection. Another option is to start by demonstrating how to use the simulation and ask some pointed questions about how the system works to guide exploration. For example, Desalination is a simulation of a water desalination plant. Students can solve the puzzle of how the plant fits together and test different input and output pipe depths to maximize the plant’s efficiency. To best use the tool, we recommend first demonstrating some of the tool’s functionality, like how to connect pipes and how you can tell if the plant’s subsystems are properly connected. To help focus students’ interactions, we recommend asking a few guiding questions like, “What does subsystem X in the plant do?”

How to Maximize Learning with Simulations

Simulations are extremely valuable as teaching tools and virtual environments to support inquiry-based learning. Here are some suggestions for making the most of simulations with your students:

  • Give students a specific purpose for exploring the simulation. As a class, you can brainstorm specific questions that students might explore. Ask students to hypothesize answers and test their predictions.
  • Project the simulation as a whole class teaching tool. By showing the simulation on your interactive whiteboard, you can model how to use it and facilitate students’ thinking.
  • Pair students up to explore the simulation with a partner. The collaborative use of simulations will encourage students to verbalize their thinking and strategies.

Have you used simulations with your students? Please share your thoughts, strategies, or questions in the comments below.