What Is Simulation Learning?

portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
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Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., has more than 15 years of experience in online education and training as an instructional designer, curriculum manager, and adjunct professor. She is also a certified career coach. Melissa works on research, instructional d...
Updated on October 2, 2023
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  • Simulation learning allows students to practice critical work skills in a controlled environment.
  • By participating in simulation learning, you'll hone your communication and technical abilities.
  • Simulation learning can take the form of online games and virtual or augmented reality.

One reason people attend college is to prepare for future jobs and careers. But it's not always feasible to learn, or practice what you've learned, in a real-world setting while you're in school.

While internships can provide you with valuable workplace experience, they often take a lot of time and can be highly competitive. What's more, many have gone 100% virtual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting students' options for gaining firsthand experience in their fields.

Research shows that simulations can be just as effective as other methods of instruction and lead to better retention of information.

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Simulation learning may be the best solution to this lack of in-person professional development for college students. Research shows that simulations — especially those that use virtual reality — can be just as effective as other methods of instruction and lead to better retention of information.

As more schools and programs develop hybrid and online learning options, simulations may be relied on as a way for students to practice what they're learning and be evaluated at a distance.

A Definition of Simulation Learning

Simulation learning is a strategy educators can use to not only teach course concepts, but to also provide students with opportunities to apply new skills, knowledge, and ideas in a practice setting that mirrors the real world.

Simulations let you develop key skills through trial and error in a safe, controlled setting before you move on to practice in real life. This kind of learning has been used for decades in industries such as aviation, healthcare, and the military, and is now being applied in more fields.

Typically, simulations incorporate some or all of the following characteristics:

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    Environment: Simulations replicate in some way an authentic situation or location, such as a pilot's cockpit, hospital room, or chemistry lab. These imitation environments can be built in physical or digital spaces.
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    Scenarios: Simulations present a problem to solve or a situation to react to in a specific context, which could include a certain time frame and/or a set of tools or resources.
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    Open-Ended: Simulations often require you to make a series of decisions. Each decision impacts the progress you make in that scenario and determines what decisions you'll make next. There may be multiple potential solutions, with no one right path forward.
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    Role-Playing: Simulations often place you in a specific role within the scenario. Some require you to collaborate with learners in other roles who are working through the same problem but from different perspectives.
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    Guided Participation: Simulations are usually facilitated by an instructor who sets up the scenario and works with you or your team as you proceed. Most simulations can be paused when needed to review students' progress.
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    Reflection: Simulations rely on structured reflection — through discussion, journaling, and other assignments — to evaluate the decisions that were made, connect them to the outcomes they led to, and reinforce what you learned from the experience.

What Are the Benefits of Simulation Learning?

There are a lot of reasons to like simulation learning. In addition to lowering training and education costs, simulations make learning safer for students. You wouldn't want a budding pilot or nurse to begin their training in an aircraft or with a live patient, for example. Likewise, it wouldn't be a good idea to have geology students travel to an active volcano to learn about lava flow.

Simulations can also be engaging. They introduce an interactive component to classes designed to not only develop students' skills, but also teach them how to apply those skills in an array of scenarios.

Research in medical training finds that simulations are especially beneficial in developing three types of skills:

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    Technical Skills

    Each field of study includes hard skills related to the expertise needed to perform the work. Examples include writing a computer program, being able to use specialized equipment, and understanding a foreign language.

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    Problem-Solving Skills

    Most industries involve solving problems. Successful solutions require soft skills, such as time management, critical thinking, prioritizing, and decision-making.

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    Communication Skills

    Simulations often include activities that let you practice communicating and collaborating with teammates, replicating what will be required in an actual work setting (e.g., listening, discussing, negotiating, reporting, and presenting).

Mastering these three skills requires lots of practice. Another benefit of simulations is that they allow for repetition — you can work through the scenarios multiple times to explore how different decisions impact the outcome.

The 4 Main Types of Simulation Learning

You might have already experienced simulation learning activities in your life. For instance, have you ever taken a first-aid or CPR course that used a manikin? Or maybe you played educational games like The Oregon Trail in elementary school. These are just two examples of simulation learning.

Some simulations are more realistic than others, often described in terms of low fidelity (less realistic) or high fidelity (more realistic). Many technologies may be used to build and provide access to simulated scenarios in your college classes. Here are four of the most common types of simulations you'll see.

Interactive Web-Based Simulations

Applications have been developed across subject areas to help students understand complex concepts by having them manipulate on-screen components, like images and animations, and participate in online activities.

Online science labs often incorporate these elements so students can safely conduct experiments at home. Other web-based tools, such as PBS Online's Forces Lab, illustrate math and physics concepts.

Professors at DePaul University's College of Education developed a learning disability simulator that allows students preparing to be teachers to experience what it's like to have a learning disability, such as dyslexia. This simulation asks students to write an essay without using certain letters of the alphabet.

As they type, users are also sporadically interrupted to simulate some of the frustration students with learning disabilities might feel in a classroom setting.

Game-Based Simulations

Some simulations are built with game-like features — such as goals, rules, and players — to motivate student participation and enhance learning. Sometimes called "serious games," these scenarios lead to educational outcomes, meaning that while trying to win the game, you'll practice your skills and apply your knowledge to solve problems related to your course topics.

MIT's Sloan School of Management developed a collection of online games that help students studying a bachelor's in business administration better understand how to found a startup, come up with a product pricing structure, and effectively negotiate.

Meanwhile, The ReDistricting Game created by USC's Annenberg Center illustrates how decisions about mapping political districts can impact system abuse, voting outcomes, and civic engagement.

In-Person Simulations at Special Facilities

Not all simulations take place through a computer screen. Many students hone their skills in an in-person simulation held at a specific place designed for simulation activities. These facilities use different spaces and equipment for specialized computer programs and simulation devices, such as those used for pilot training.

Bentley University's Hughey Center for Financial Services includes a physical trading room that offers an immersive simulation of a Wall Street-type stock trading floor. Students interact with information led by a software-run scenario. An online version of the trading room has also been developed to support remote learning in the wake of COVID-19.

Students in healthcare-related majors often encounter simulation learning, too, as they prepare to work with patients in medical facilities and offices. Penn State's Nursing Simulation Laboratory is one example of an immersive in-person setting that includes hands-on practice with everything from medical records to patient symptoms.

Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed-Reality Simulations

Virtual reality technologies let students become more immersed in a learning scenario. These simulations may require special equipment, such as a VR headset. Other interactions take place online through digital platforms and smartphone apps.

Penn State's College of Education recently created a mixed-reality simulation for students in teaching, social work, and counseling fields. The school's SIMPACT simulation provides practice working with special education students in a simulated elementary school classroom. All student avatars are voiced by actors in real time.

InMind, which is used in healthcare training, provides a closer look at how the human brain functions and the interaction of neurons in mental disorders. This simulation combines virtual reality, game play, and educational lessons to explore a patient's brain at the micro level.

Prepare to Participate in Simulations

Before beginning a simulation activity or assignment, make sure you understand the instructions and expectations. Will you need special equipment? Is there a time limit? As with any assignment, don't hesitate to ask your professor for more information.

Embrace the opportunity to learn in many ways in your courses, including through simulations. They won't necessarily be easy assignments, but that's a good thing. Making mistakes, watching and listening, working through problems, and reflecting on your experience are part of the process.

If you don't feel challenged at all, it probably wasn't a very good simulation. These experiences and the perspective you'll gain will leave you better prepared to perform the same skills in similar situations once you graduate and enter the workforce.

Feature Image: Hispanolistic / E+ / Getty Images

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