Best Practices: Conceptualizing a Simulation

Learning Objectives

The class learning objectives will shape the simulation in important ways. Consider how the simulation might further the pedagogical goals of the course. What do you want students to take away from this experience? How could an immersive exercise help you to achieve this? What skills or capabilities are you hoping students will gain from this experience?

Below are some examples of how you can match your learning objectives with different simulation models:

Skills Building

Simulations provide realistic scenarios that allow students to develop hands-on skills in their field, including areas such as critical assessment, problem solving, communication, evaluation and management (Steadman et al., 2006; Asal & Blake, 2006). 

Knowledge Acquisition

Simulations have been proven to increase student understanding of course material in the classroom (Andonova & Mendoza‐Castro, 2008; Shegog et al., 2012) and in clinical settings (Mariani et al., 2017). Simulations that aim to enhance student knowledge should focus on the preparatory phase of the simulation to build the groundwork for knowledge acquisition (Asal & Blake, 2006).

Student Engagement

Simulations have been shown to increase student participation and engagement in the classroom (Weidenfeld & Fernandez, 2016). Simulations provide opportunities for students to interact with one another as they immerse themselves in the activity, which promotes hands-on learning and collaboration. These interactions promote a social network and system of peer support within the classroom, enriching students’ team-based competencies. 

Real-world Application

Classes that seek to immerse students in real-world events or experiences can benefit from simulations that recreate fictionalized versions of these scenarios. One of the advantages of simulation-based learning is the opportunity to place students in a real situation they may encounter on a career path within their field of study. For example, the use of patient simulations for students seeking health professions (Zendejas et al., 2013), or advanced laboratory techniques in virtual experiments for those in natural science and engineering (Jong et al., 2013).


The amount of class time used to run your simulation may range from single-class sessions to multi-day or multi-month time commitments. Deciding at the outset how many in-class hours you should invest in the simulation will help narrow down the type of simulation that is best suited to your requirements.

Suggestions for shorter time frames (single-session simulations):

Debates / Role Play

Preparation is the key to a successful single-session debate or role play (e.g. Baranowski, 2006).  Aim to zero in on a specific single topic to ensure that students don’t get lost within the experience.  

Clinical Practice

Short burst simulations (e.g., fast-paced, emergency scenarios) and other patient-based activities are models that can be completed within single sessions (e.g. Kneebone et al., 2002).

Virtual Simulation

Virtual reality activities provide students with unique immersive experiences designed to provide quick and useful hands-on learning (e.g. Amar et al., 2006; Rutten et al. 2012).

Suggestions for longer time frames (multi-day simulations):

Immersive Character Role Play

Role-play simulations allow students to immerse themselves in a fictitious process or event and represent their role in the first person. These simulations often require multiple sessions to create a full immersive experience (e.g. Druckman & Ebner, 2008; Schnurr et al., 2013).  

Case Studies

Complex case studies can be designed to span over multiple class periods, enabling students to apply problem-based learning in a context that replicates the timing of real–world realities. Case studies provide students with skills that revolve centrally around specific career development objectives and are designed to illustrate work-related issues or problems (Lateef, 2010; Cant & Cooper, 2010).

Class Size

Different simulation genres are more appropriately suited to different class sizes. For example, it is much easier to facilitate character-based discussion groups, debates, and clinical practice in smaller classes, whereas larger classes can cater nicely to complex role-play activities, or virtual simulations that can be completed on a personal computer (i.e. games, science labs, or any downloadable modelled simulation).

Level of Instruction

Simulations designed for first and second year university students pose different challenges than those utilized in upper year or graduate classes, where students already have well-rounded research, writing and analytical skills that help simulations reach ‘their full potential’  (Lindquist et al., 2008). Designing simulations for first or second year students requires considering how much foundational knowledge is needed for this simulation to be a success. Consider veering towards simulation models that require less knowledge going into the simulations (e.g. see Baranowski, 2006 and Greene, 2008 for good examples).