Sunday, August 5, 2012

Simulations That Move Students Beyond Decision-Making And Into Evaluation

Picture students as they run the simulated Lemonade Stand. They are faced with a myriad of entrepreneurial choices. Should they order more lemons?  Raise prices? Produce quantities in bulk?  Whether in business or biology, educational simulations aid the shift from students’ recall to the application of knowledge through decision-making.  Research backs up the increase in student learning.

While these types of simulations advance learning, they need to go one step further.

The nature of their set-up and programming is algorithmic. Good choices are rewarded; poor choices punished. Assuming that the decision in question has a guaranteed ‘correct’ choice, this is helpful in allowing students to practice decision-making, and then receiving the immediate feedback.  However, real-world decisions are seldom so black and white. We need to tap into web 2.0 technologies to develop these simulations further -  allowing a student to make decisions and then be immediately evaluated by peers (and the public),  while simultaneously allowing the student to act as an evaluator of his peers’ ideas. We need to mimic the real world where decisions are judged by the public for their merit and feedback does not exclusively rely upon a pre-programmed equation (or on one teacher’s judgement).

More importantly, with such a premise, tomorrow’s simulation can more effectively place students in nuanced, messy scenarios in which student options do not seem to have a clear ‘right option’. These are the environments that our students will encounter in the real world. Algorithmic simulations, by their nature, only provide feedback on the black and white issues, never venturing into the complex areas that Problem-Based Learning proponents have been advocating for years.

For example, the entrepreneurial simulation simCEO ( asks students to create their own business plan and then adjust to dynamic news. These student-created businesses form their own “classroom market” and each student is presented with $10,000 dollars to invest in the businesses of his/her choice.  Strong ideas are rewarded as peers buy more shares. Meaningful adjustments to the business plan along the way are rewarded similarly. Of course, the inverse is true as well.

In our fictional Lemonade Stand, the student is focused on ‘outsmarting the simulation’ by making the correct decisions.  However, in a simulation that stresses evaluation, understanding content (in an academic sense) is not enough.   Students must analyze the full scope of the situation and communicate sound decisions, backed by knowledge, in a way that persuades their peers. After all, isn’t that a better metric for ‘simulating’ the real-world?

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