The latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics 46, 4 (October 2013) has three articles on classroom use of simulations. Two focus on the use of these in teaching about legal processes:
United States Supreme Court Confirmation Simulation: Learning through the Process of Experience
Arthur H. Auerbach, University of Southern California
The traditional process of educating undergraduates is often relegated to the passive lecturing format. One means of engaging students in active learning is through the use of simulations. Students were asked to take on the roles of United States senators and a Supreme Court nominee during a United States Supreme Court confirmation hearing simulation. Each student participated by researching a sitting senator and the nominee selected and engaged in a question-and-answer session as is done in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Students came away from this valuable experience by not only learning a great deal about the operation of the confirmation hearing as well as the substantive material learned but participating in a process that few people will ever actually experience.
The Settlement Game: A Simulation Teaching Institutional Theories of Public Law
Dave Bridge, Baylor University
Many political science subfields use classroom simulations. Public law, however, suffers from a lack of such activities. Many mock trials exist, but these games focus on jurisprudence and not on the more institutional aspects of the subfield. This article presents the Settlement Game, an original simulation that takes 15 minutes to complete and helps teach important institutional theories such as adversarial legalism, “bargaining in the shadow of the law,” and “haves” versus “have-nots” concepts heretofore overlooked by the simulations literature. I introduce relevant theories and describe how the simulation works, discussing preclass assignments, its operation, and debriefing about its connection to theory. I close with comments about assessment of students and explain why the Settlement Game is useful.
The third looks at the use of simulations in comparative pedagogical perspective, arguing that simulations are not necessarily the best method and that a variety of different teaching techniques may be more appropriate given variation in student learning styles:
Active Learning Strategies for Diverse Learning Styles: Simulations Are Only One Method
Pam Bromley, Pomona College
Although political science instructors increasingly recognize the advantages of incorporating active learning activities into their teaching, simulations remain the discipline’s most commonly used active learning method. While certainly a useful strategy, simulations are not the only way to bring active learning into classrooms. Indeed, because students have diverse learning styles—comprised of their discrete learning preferences—engaging them in a variety of ways is important. This article explores six active learning techniques: simulations, case studies, enhanced lectures, large group discussion, small group work, and in-class writing. Incorporating these activities into an introductory, writing-intensive seminar on globalization and surveying students about their engagement with course activities, I find that different activities appeal to students with different learning preferences and that simulations are not students most preferred activity. Bringing a broader range of active learning strategies into courses can improve teaching for all students, no matter their learning style.
The findings are based on feedback from first year students (n=53) in several sections of a course on globalization. The results show that these students did not rate simulations the most effective learning strategy, ranking it behind large group discussion and only narrowly ahead of case studies (see below). Moreover, the standard deviation for simulations was the largest of the group, indicating a broader spread in student perceptions of this tool.
There are a couple of caveats that might be added to these findings. First, self-reported learning outcomes are not necessarily the same thing as actual impacts of learning. Participants in such a study might well overstate the learning effectiveness of methods they enjoyed (discussions, simulations) and understate the impact of methods they enjoyed less (enhanced lectures, and especially in-class writing—after all, who enjoys that?). Second, and more importantly, the findings might actually be measuring the relative skill of the instructor in these various techniques, the quality of the simulations or case studies used, or the way they were integrated into curriculum, rather than the general efficacy of any particular method.
That being said, Bromley’s findings are a useful antidote to the notion that serious games and simulations are an educational panacea. They can work. They can work well. They do not necessarily work equally well with everyone, however, and they are not necessarily much more effective than some “traditional” methods (like large group discussions or small group work). The study also points to the value of seeing simulations as part of what I have previously called “intellectual cross-training”—that is, a mix of different approaches designed to both engage students in different ways and liven up the classroom experience.