Simple Simulations

In simulations, faculty establish a fictional environment and ask students to achieve a goal, bounded by a set of rules. Students work to achieve a goal such as “diagnose and treat a patient,” “survive for 30 days,” or “build an empire.” In most simulations, the environment changes as students make individual and collective actions. Simulations can be low-tech or high-tech. They can be individual or group activities.


Course Design: Work with an instructional designer to review your course goals and determine what kind of simulation will work best.

Technology Selection: When you are using simulations for the first time, keep it simple. You can describe a fictional environment using text, audio, images, and video. This will help you test out the storyline, rules, and student reactions without a heavy investment of time and programming resources. If you want to do something more complex, see if there is an existing product that you can repurpose for your course.

Feedback: A simulation reacts to input from students. If you are doing a simple simulation, this may involve a weekly update to students about how their decisions impacted the fictional environment and what the new set of conditions look like.

Assessment: Students may “fail” in the simulation and still learn much. Have students write a reflection paper based on their simulated experience and what they have learned.

Skills Utilized

  • Application of underlying principles
  • Synthesis of information from different sources
  • Weighing the pros and cons of alternatives
  • Adjusting strategy to accommodate new data

Target Skills

  • Any, depending on the nature of the simulation

Grading Criteria

  • Ability to apply underlying course principles to novel situations
  • Understanding a problem or situation from a variety of perspectives

Pros & Cons


  • Can help students understand a person who is different from themselves.
  • Students become highly engaged in good simulations
  • Highly memorable


  • Usually requires thorough testing to ensure that the simulation functions correctly
  • May take time to produce simulation or media
  • Potential learning curve for students using sim software



Through simulations, students get as close to first-hand experience as possible without compromising their safety. Simulations also help students experience what a theoretical environment or situation might be like and give them experience applying course principles.


Understanding Work without Sick Days

NERDLab, the games research lab in the University of Miami’s School of Communication, has created an app called Unsavory ( This simulation asks users to imagine what it would be like to be a food service employee with no sick days. The goal of the simulation is to understand the dilemma that food service employees have between taking care of their health needs, preventing the spread of their illness, and paying their bills. The simulation is designed based on McDonalds financial planning advice, making it more authentic to how actual restaurants view their employees. The NERDLab urges users to try the simulation and get involved with legislative action.

World Without Oil

In 2006, the World Without Oil simulation (http://
) invited participants across the Internet to imagine what it would be like to experience a global oil shortage. During each of 32 weeks, there were news announcements about the state of the crisis and how it was affecting people, governments, and services. The results were over 1,500 images, blog posts, audio recordings, e-mail messages, videos, and other artifacts, created to describe the effects of the crisis. Topics covered economic impact, food sources, transportation, employment, access to technology, and violent reactions to protecting or acquiring resources.