What are Simulations?

A simulation is a form of experiential learning. Simulations are instructional scenarios where the learner is placed in a “world” defined by the teacher. They represent a reality within which students interact. The teacher controls the parameters of this “world” and uses it to achieve the desired instructional results. Simulations are in way, a lab experiment where the students themselves are the test subjects. They experience the reality of the scenario and gather meaning from it. It is a strategy that fits well with the principles of constructivism.

Simulations promote the use of critical and evaluative thinking. The ambiguous or open ended nature of a simulation encourages students to contemplate the implications of a scenario. The situation feels real and thus leads to more engaging interaction by learners. They are motivating activities enjoyed by students of all ages.

Simulations take a number of forms. They may contains elements of a game, a role-play, or an activity that acts as a metaphor. The chief element is that they have context. Board games such as Monopoly or Careers are a type of simulation. The primary distinctions between a game and a “sim” are the nonlinear nature and the controlled ambiguity. Students must make decisions within its context. Success is usually determined by the industry and commitment of the participants. The goal is not to win but to acquire knowledge and understanding.


  • Enjoyable, motivating activity
  • Element of reality is compatible with principles of constructivism
  • Enhances appreciation of the more subtle aspects of a concept/principle
  • Promotes critical thinking


  • Preparation time
  • Cost can be an issue
  • Assessment is more complex than some traditional teaching methods¬†

What is its purpose?

Simulations promote concept attainment through experiential practice. Simulations are effective at helping students understand the nuances of a concept or circumstance. Students are often more deeply involved in simulations than other activities. Since they are living the activity the opportunity exists for increased engagement.

Issues from Social Studies for example, such as the management of the environment, politics, community, and culture can be more deeply appreciated through simulations. Similar to labs in a science class, the process itself educates the students. The goal of a sim may be singular or multifaceted. Students might be expected to gain an understanding of inequity in society while participating in a resource distribution activity. A class gains an understanding of the Canadian political system via a mock election campaign. Simulations can reinforce other skills indirectly. Debating, a method associated with some large scale sims, is a skill sharpened within this context. Research skills are often applied to an activity.

How do I do it?

Guided by a set of parameters, students undertake to solve problems, adapt to issues arising from their scenario, and gain an awareness of the unique circumstances that exist within the confines of the simulation. Some simulations require one day, others may take weeks to complete. Scope and content varies greatly. This being true, specific guidelines change with the activity. Several principles however apply to all.

  • Ensure that students understand the procedures before beginning. It improves efficacy if the students can enjoy uninterrupted participation. Frustration can arise with too many uncertainties. This will be counter productive.
  • Try to anticipate questions before they are asked. The pace of some simulations is quick and the sense of reality is best maintained with ready responses. Monitor student progress.
  • Know what you wish to accomplish. Many simulations can have more than one instructional goal. Developing a rubric for evaluation is a worthwhile step. If appropriate, students should be made aware of the specific outcomes expected of them.

How can I adapt it?

Simulations can typically be adapted internally to address the specific circumstances of the students and class environment. They can also be offered as a replacement for other teaching strategies thus themselves being an adaptation.

Opportunity for enrichment or modification exists. A Social Studies resource simulation can be adapted to fit a unit in Language Arts. The grade 6 and 7 themes of survival can be drawn out from the need to struggle to obtain limited resources. There are at least 3 ways simulations can be used and internally adapted to classrooms.

  • Time – the arc of the activity can be adjusted.
  • Content – some simulations offer content more appropriate to specific ages. The election simulation listed in teacher resources, for example, has 3 separate scenarios. Each possesses a similar theme but the content allows the unit to be used from Gr. 5 to 12. See the teacher resource page for details.
  • Expectations – Not all students appreciate the subtleties of a concept as well as others. Rubrics can be developed to help the teacher determine the level of success.

Assessment and Evaluation

The nature of simulations mean that experiences are more real than some other techniques. Their drawback can be the assessment. Teachers must monitor the process to ensure that students both understand the process and are benefiting from it. For this reason, it is very helpful to develop a rubric as a guide. Simulations are often best used as part of the process of learning rather than a summative measure of it. Follow-up activities may be helpful to establish a measure of comprehension. Some prepackaged simulations include assessment suggestions. See the resource page for examples. Listed below are a number of rubrics to use as samples and an interesting rubric generator.

Teachers may ask themselves a number of questions to assess the simulation and its apparent success.

  • Does this simulation offer an appropriate measure of realism for my group of students?
  • Are the desired instructional outcomes well defined?
  • Is the level of ambiguity manageable for this group?
  • Does the student demonstrate an understanding of his/her role?
  • Are problem solving techniques in evidence?
  • Does the research being generated match the nature of the problem?
  • Is cooperation between participants in evidence?
  • Has the student been able to resolve the issue satisfactorily?
  • Does the student provide meaningful answers to probing questions?
  • Will follow-up activities be necessary?¬†

Rubrics – examples

Teacher Resources

  • Teaching Tools: Using Online Simulations and Games
  • More Reasons to Use Simulations
  • Simulation Games as Method
  • Resource simulation – suitable for Gr. 7 Resource unit, it can be adapted to issues in Gr. 6 and 7 Language Arts. This is a simple but fun one period simulation. All the required materials, except the candy of course, can be downloaded. Just follow the link.
  • Election Simulation – available from Elections Canada, this free kit is targeted to cover Gr. 5 through 12. Units with themes of power or governance from Social Studies programs may make use of this material. The kit includes a binder with all terms, handouts and a guide to the scenario. It also includes a guide for running a student union campaign. This may be an interesting way to adapt the class activity to a genuine activity. The link will take you to the order form.
  • A Forest for All – developed by the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, this lengthier sim is set in a fictitious town at odds about a proposed expansion of forest harvesting. The students are assigned roles as members of the community. Placed into groups these members take a specific position on the proposal. Having researched their position and roles, they bring their arguments to a town hall meeting. It’s at this meeting that a decision is made on the matter. This simulation that fits well with the Gr. 7 Resource unit. The sim can be adapted to cover Gr. 7-12. The opening activity involves listening to a radio program. The text of the broadcasts are in the printable materials.You can stream the audio via your computer for class use. The text of the program is in the downloadable document (.pdf file).
  • The Real Game – originally created in Canada, this is a board game that simulates life and career planning.¬† The game seeks to simulate the reflection and choices that are made by adults as they seek out career paths. The game is available in different versions to suit specific grade levels.
  • Mock trials etc.- The Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan offers a number of free, low cost or free for loan modules related to legal issues. They have simulations that have specific application to several curriculum themes. Within the site are materials for teaching themes including human rights (Health/Lifestyles) and power (Social Studies). Material available is relevant to grades 5 -12.
  • Computer Simulations – these games are very popular among students and often have an educational component. Game titles such as Oregon Trail and Amazon Trail may be familiar examples. Sometimes referred to as strategy games, they typically involve the manipulation of a group or society. The most well known are the Sid Meier series prefixed by “Sim” as in SimCity or SimFarm. Choices are made within a scenario. Circumstances rising out of these choices as well as unexpected events challenge the player. Historically, most computer sims have been single player but recently there has been an increase in network play. This means that groups of students can compete within a scenario while seated at different stations. Game settings vary widely from fictitious to historically based.
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