Remember Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab and her signature line Ooooh… What does this button do? Just like Dee Dee, when children ask this question they usually have their fingers on the button and they push it the instant they finish uttering the question.

Although they do ask it, they aren’t really interested in the theoretical explanation of the button’s functionality. They want to see how it really works, and they want to experience it first-hand. A child’s curiosity can’t be satisfied with just pure explanations; they need a demonstration and they need to try things on their own.

And this goes on well into adulthood. Students’ hunger for knowledge can’t be satisfied with dry theoretical notions; they need to see how those theories apply in real life.

Theories are especially important because the first step in becoming a specialist in any field is building a theoretical foundation. But at the same time, having a vast amount of theoretical knowledge isn’t enough to become a true connoisseur of the field. There are many things that can be taught or learned from books, but theory should always be backed up with practical knowledge as well.

Study and practice make a master.

But what about situations where data is insufficient or unreliable, and/or putting a theory into practice has serious, maybe even life-threatening risks?

Practical uses of simulations

Imagine if pilots learned to fly just from books. I’m sure flying wouldn’t have become the safest way to travel.

There are certain fields of activity where students need extensive practice before they go and test their knowledge in real-life situations. They need a secure and controlled environment where they can evaluate themselves in different scenarios and acquire practical knowledge.

There are cases when it’s hard to recreate real-life situations in a safe environment. If we stick with the pilot example, it is easy to see why. It is impossible for new pilots to test their skills in different weather conditions and situations in a real jumbo jet. There is absolutely no room for error, and it would be utterly dangerous.

Fortunately, they don’t have to risk their lives. Thanks to technology, new pilots have flight simulators that mimic the real-life scenarios almost perfectly, so they can learn how to react in different weather conditions without being exposed to any real risk.

Simulations aren’t reserved just for pilots though. They could be used in all fields, at all levels of education. They can help students in secondary school better understand physics concepts and other complex materials. They can also help medical students learn how to perform heart surgery, without the risk of any life loss. There are many practical applications of simulation in the education system.

Simulations and high engagement rates

But no matter the field they can be applied to, all simulations have one thing in common: they keep students engaged during the entire learning process.

A higher level of engagement can help transform learning into an interactive process and the added fun factor will help stir students’ interest.

The main benefit of letting students interact with simulations is that it engages them in deep learning. If students are given the chance to try out what they have learned theoretically, they will have a practical overview on the material and therefore they will get a deeper understanding on how things work in reality.

You know the saying:

Tell me, and I forget
Show me, and I may remember
Involve me, and I learn

What’s more, simulations encourage fast learning by giving instant feedback to students about the results of their actions. They can learn fast and in a safe environment how things work in reality without any negative real-life consequences. This encourages students to test out their knowledge in different ways which can lead to innovative solutions to a given problem.

The three steps for successful simulations

Creating engaging simulations with lots of meaningful content isn’t an easy task. Before you jump in and create your first simulation there are some important aspects to consider.

  1. Preparation

    Regardless of the type of simulation, the preparation phase is very important. Prior to the simulation, students need to learn the theory behind the simulated situation. This means they have to learn the course material on which they will base their decisions during the simulation, they have to know the situation depicted by the simulation, and they also need to know the goal of the process.

    Instructors and teachers should make available to students all the necessary materials supporting the simulation and they also should give a script that describes the situation.

    Before the actual simulation starts, the supervisors have to make sure that the students have all the necessary instruments and that the laboratory facilities support the simulation, if they are needed in the process.

    When the planning process is finished the simulation should be tested on a smaller scale in order to identify any possible problems.

  2. Active participation

    Although sometimes people can learn just by watching, in the case of simulations that isn’t enough. In order for the simulation to have the desired outcome, every participant should be active during the process.

    A good simulation is planned in a way that doesn’t allows inactive roles. Every participant should have an important and irreplaceable role. Instructors should make everything to make it difficult to become passive and they should reward the most active students so they’d stay motivated during the process.

  3. Post-simulation discussion

    After the simulation concludes, it’s important to have a discussion to point out the key takeaways from the process. Simulation software programs and the simulation equipment can have an instant feedback system but it is important to discuss the outcomes with the instructor as well.

    It’s important for students to summarize what they learned from the simulation and they should point out any difficulties they met during the process. Through the feedback they get from the supervisor they will be able to correct any mistakes they made and next time — or when real life demands it — they will perform what they’ve learned flawlessly.

Closing thoughts

Simulations are supporting the education system to better equip students with practical knowledge, so when it comes to tackling real-life situations in their future careers they can perform better. Taking into consideration the benefits offered by simulations in the education process, it would be a shame to miss out on them.

Author: Zsolt B

Zsolt is a Marketing Analyst at CYPHER LEARNING and a University Teaching Assistant. When he’s not in the classroom — nor on a motorcycle — he learns about new ways of teaching, education technology, and everything about e-learning.