Why We Use Simulations for Learning, Part 2

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Why We Use Simulations for Learning
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Why We Use Simulations for Learning, Part 2

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In the last blog post, I talked about five reasons we use simulations for learning. Can you remember what they are? Well, here are five more reasons to convince you of the power of simulations to enhance learning outcomes.

  1. Allow learners to try on different perspectives and identities. In one simulation we conducted, a participant reported that his assigned role had forced him completely out of his usual approaches to conflict management. His character was a “yeller,” so he tried that approach to see how it felt and what results he got. He ultimately decided that his usual collaborative approach would be more successful, but he said he gained a better understanding of those who do use power and yelling to achieve results. Here’s what the research says:
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “Similarly, in organizational research, Brown and Starkey (2000) conceptualized play as a range of activities that allow organizational members to explore the threshold between the current situation and future possibilities. Based on these preliminary ideas, Ibarra and Petriglieri (2010) suggested that identity play involves the crafting and provisional trial of immature and unelaborated possible selves. This suggests that play may have a central role in leadership development processes, since it can enable individuals to become involved in identity play in which they are able to experiment, invent and re-envision themselves in the role of leadership by claiming different leadership identities. Thus, types of play that encourage identity play, such as role-play, simulations, and outdoor experiences, which provide structures in which the individuals have the opportunity to explore a new role, position, or leadership behavior, are likely to foster the development of a leader identity.”
  2. Encourage learners to take more responsibility for their learning. Probably one of the most common reasons that people feel uncomfortable with simulations is that these activities take them out of the passive role of listening to someone else and make them take responsibility for what they learn. What you get out of a simulation depends on what you put into it. If you don’t engage and experiment, you won’t learn. Here’s what the research says:
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “Research by Kolb & Kolb shows that play encourages learners to achieve authentic and higher order learning by taking responsibility for their learning through creating game rules and conduct standards for themselves.”
  3. Improve on learning from experience. It’s been said that experience is the best teacher. However, having an experience doesn’t guarantee that learning will occur. Often, people don’t take the time to reflect on what happened and what they could do differently, or they may be asking the wrong questions. Learning requires feedback and support to guide understanding and behavior change. Here’s what the research says:
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “Although learning from experience has been thought of as one of the major ways in which leaders can develop, McCall (2004: 128) points out that ‘[p]eople don’t automatically learn from experience. They can come away with nothing, the wrong lessons, or only some of what they might have learned.’ This is true for engagement in play as well. To allow people to benefit and learn the most from experience necessitates time and space for ‘inner work’ and reflection, to deepen awareness of one’s sense of self and enable consciousness raising. The opportunity to reflect deeply away from the day-to-day rush can contribute to the sense-making processes that enable learning from experience from what otherwise might be perceived as escapist activities (McCall, 2004; Mirvis,2008; Petriglieri & Petriglieri, 2010; Snook, 2007).”Simulations can also improve the learning experience by condensing events into shorter timeframes. For example, we recently conducted an adaptive leadership simulation that condensed into a single day the months and months of activity to rebuild a town after a flood.
  4. Integrate skills in complex environments. We often use simulations as integrative activities to allow learners to apply and combine skills they’ve learned in separate sessions. For example, after a series of sessions on building trust, coaching others, influencing stakeholders, leveraging organizational culture, and managing change, learners participated in a simulation that required them to apply all of these skills to overcome a significant organizational challenge. Here’s what the research says:
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “Furthermore, play has been suggested to enhance learning of complicated fields, to contribute to the acquisition of new knowledge, and to synthesizing of distinct concepts and memory processes (Brown& Vaughan, 2009).”
    • In a Harvard Business Review article on games as online leadership labs, one game participant describes how the game equates to reality: “The closest thing I can liken the leadership of an 80-person modern raiding guild to is the management of a medium-size business,” says a World of Warcraft game leader, a former U.S. Army officer with a master’s degree in human resource management. “You need to allocate resources, construct balanced compensation for your employees, stay ahead of the competition, ensure growth, and keep everyone happy and productive while handling many other day-to-day details.”
  5. Support the way the brain works. Simulations and games activate the brain’s reward system, which helps orient the learner’s attention and create connections between neurons. In addition, by giving learners multiple opportunities to apply new learning, simulations help strengthen new neural pathways. Finally, simulations often evoke powerful emotions, which research has shown improves memory and learning. Here’s what the research says:
    • Sitzmann’s meta-analysis showed that trainees learn more from simulation games that actively engage trainees in learning rather than passively conveying the information.
    • Bristol University professor Paul Howard-Jones has shown that the brain reward response of releasing dopamine can positively influence the rate at which people learn.
    • A study from the University of Montreal describes how emotions affect cognitive processes such as attention, long-term memory, and decision-making: “Positive affects are fundamental in cognitive organization and thought processes; they also play an important role to improve creativity and flexibility in problem solving (Isen, 2000). Reciprocally, negative affects can block thought processes; people who are anxious have a reduced memory capacity (Idzihowski, 1987).”

In summary, both C2’s experience and extensive research show that games and simulations can improve learning and performance on the job. No one questions that an airline pilot would practice in a simulator instead of risking a real crash. Similarly, it’s important for a CEO to test out an approach to change management before risking an organization’s future.


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