In this unit, we offer a critical introduction into the potential and challenges of simulation-based instruction, in order to enable you to stand up to the challenge of being selective and strategic when incorporating simulations into your teaching. We familiarize you with the design principles for constructivist, playful simulation environments, and with strategies you could employ to effectively integrate simulations into your teaching practices.




  • How to teach with simulations
  • Theoretical basis for simulations (constructivism, sociocultural/situated learning theories, playful pedagogy)
  • Videos to identify how to teach with simulations
  • Readings on theoretical basis for simulations
  • Reflections -  Learning journal entry
  • Identify the basic pedagogical characteristics of playful simulations in terms of trial and error, experimentation, decision making, and interpretation
  • Develop critical approaches and stances towards the role and use of simulation-based learning
  • Understand and discuss the potential limitations, issues, and problems associated with simulation-based learning
  • Understand how simulation-based pedagogy is related to contemporary learning theories: constructivism, social constructivism, situated learning, constructionism, playful and experiential learning

How to Teach with Simulations

Simulation-based instruction is a flexible teaching approach that can be used in most disciplines to stimulate student motivation and learning. However, although simulations provide a range of potential educational benefits, not all of the existing simulations are appropriately designed. Instructors should be able to assess the educative power of different simulations, and to select simulations with pedagogically sound design features, including the following:

 A user-friendly, intuitive interface.

 A realistic scenario which reflects actual practice and genuine situations.

 An engaging, playful scenario that motivates and immerses students in the learning process.

 A challenging problem-solving environment that promotes learners’ higher order, critical thinking skills.

 The capability to adjust the timescale of the simulation so as to allow students to make more considered decisions, reflect on their actions and analyse the results in greater detail than would be feasible in a fast, real-time situation.

 Varied difficulty levels for the student to choose from, so as to address individual learning need.

 Provision of appropriate feedback on users’ actions for self-assessment of progress.

 Opportunities for collaboration.

A good example of high-quality simulations are the freely available PhET simulations targeting STEM education. PhET simulations engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where they learn through exploration and discovery. These simulations are created within the PhET Interactive Simulations project, which was founded in 2002 at the University of Colorado Boulder by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman. They are unique because their development is based on extensive research on learning and computer interface design, and extensive testing with students. In the following video you can hear from the teams' researchers and developers about the process by which the simulations are created.

(You can find their free simulations at

Instructors play a key role not only in choosing appropriate simulations, but also in planning classroom activities, and in facilitating learning by providing continued support and scaffolding. Simulations should not dominate class time but should be used as part of carefully planned learning experiences. The research literature indicates that digital games and simulations are more effective when acting as adjuncts to more traditional teaching methods rather than as stand-alone applications (Gee, 2003).

In particular, research suggests that equally important to a clear and focused introduction to simulations is the conduct of a debriefing and reflection activity, in which students review and analyze the events that occurred in the simulations, reflect on the content of the simulation, and share the knowledge acquired while engaging with the simulation (Abatzis, & Littlewood, 2015; Fanning & Gaba, 2007, Levett-Jones & Lapkin, 2014).

See how others do it

We thought that a good way for you to learn how to effectively utilize simulations is to hear from other instructors that have successfully incorporated simulations into their instruction. For this reason, we have selected some videos where instructors from different disciplines share their experiences from implementing simulation-based learning, and provide advice regarding strategies you could use to make optimal use of simulations in your courses.

The following two videos, produced by The Patient Safety Institute (PSI), the simulation center for Northwell Health and the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, demonstrate what “good debrief” and “bad debrief” might look like.

Simulation Instructor Course - Good Debrief (Using D.E.B.R.I.E.F. Method)

Simulation Instructor Course - Bad Debrief


Constructivism, Constructionism

Use of simulation-based pedagogies is grounded on constructivist and constructionist learning theories.

According to constructivism:

  • Knowledge is actively constructed by the individual.
  • Coming to know is an adaptive process which organizes the individual's experiential world.

Constructionism is a related theory, which argues that:

  • An effective way for learners to construct knowledge in the head is to build something ‘tangible’, a meaningful product.
  • Connections with knowledge should be made in diverse ways.
  • Learners are more likely to become intellectually engaged when working on personally meaningful activities.

The following videos explain the main ideas behind constructivist and constructionist views of learning.

Piaget's Stages of Development

The collaboration of Piaget and Vygotsky

Seymour Papert

Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age - Mitchel Resnick

Sociocultural/ situated learning theories

One of the desirable features of pedagogically sound simulations is the provision of opportunities for collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is grounded in sociocultural/ situated learning theories, according to which knowledge is co-constructed by learners interacting with each other and with the tools of their context. Sociocultural/ situated learning theories advocate:

  • Learning as a social act best supported through collaborative activities (Vygotsky, 1998)
  • Exchange of experiences and ideas
  • Collective generation of knowledge

You can also read the article Collaborative Learning via Simulations and Games by Jay Baker (2014), which reviews the literature around collaborative learning via simulations and games (CLSG), and discusses the relevant implications for educational settings.

To learn more about socio-cultural/ situated learning theories, you can also view the following videos.

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Jean Lave: The Situated Learning Theory

The Power of Collaboration and Communities of Practice | Miguel Asencio | TEDxJWUNorthMiami

Playful Pedagogy

The core concepts for playful education, based on which the whole course is developed are the following:

 Lusory attitude: playfulness is no longer restricted to childhood, but has become a lifelong attitude (Frissen et al 2015, p. 10).

 Ludification of culture: playful attitudes, practices, and objects coming together in ludic worldviews that are potentially transgressive, sacred, revolutionary (Raessens 2006 & 2014).

 Ludic technologies always embody freedom (Frissen et al 2015, p, 38): freedom to be playful, freedom to make decisions, freedom towards the world.

 Being playful is beyond profane seriousness - in the act of play, profane reality is enriched by a layer of sacred seriousness.

 Being playful can become a genuine medium of scholarly inquiry into the roots of philosophical activity (Frissen et al 2015, p. 24).

 Playful education plays with the rules - plays with/in worlds - is participatory culture.

 Playful education as ‘rite de passage’: a room for new combinations of actions and thoughts.

(more at Principles - Patterns - Processes - Pedagogy for Playful Education by Morn and Nørgård)

In the following TEDx talk, Becky Stirrup shares her research and experiences in educating and learning through programmes which focus on the promotion of playful learning.

A good example of a simulation developed based on the principles and theory of playful pedagogy is Algodoo - Physics Educational Software, a 2D physics simulation environment for creating interactive scenes in a playful, cartoony manner. Algodoo is designed to encourage young people’s own creativity, ability and motivation to construct knowledge. The synergy of science and art makes Algodoo as educational as it is entertaining.

Let's reflect on what we have learned...

Before moving on, take some time to reflect in your learning journal on a couple of central considerations and questions when doing teaching and learning through simulations:

  1. How to teach with simulations?
  2. Which are the basic pedagogical characteristics of playful simulations?
  3. How can the potential limitations, issues, and problems associated with simulation-based learning be faced?