A simulation is a type of teaching tool where students are able to learn through self-corrective behavior. Simulations are essentially simplified representations of reality that allow students to interact in a realistic environment where the complexity of situations and events can be controlled. This allows students to respond to, and master, real-world skills without the real-life consequences that failure would bring (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2009).
Simulations can take many forms, including digital, non-digital, cooperative, or competitive. For the purposes of this research, all referenced simulations will be digital.
There are many benefits to using simulations to promote student learning. One of the main advantages simulations have over other teaching models is that students engaged in a simulation actually learn by experience, they are able to “feel” the effects of their decisions, rather than receiving feedback through a teacher (Joyce et al., 2009). Because of the interactivity that simulations offer, students are often highly engaged in learning activities that use these types of tools, which results in increased content retention (Joyce et al., 2009; Villano, 2008).
Simulations also help to promote the types of skills that students are expected to master for success in the 21st Century workplace. These include cooperation, competition, critical thinking, decision-making, empathy, and facing consequences (Joyce et al., 2009). Engaging with these “real-world” skills also helps students to master course content, as the lessons feel like more authentic problem-solving activities than isolated and irrelevant classroom lessons.
Overall, teaching through simulations offers many benefits to students and teachers. By becoming more engaged and interested in the activities, students are more invested in the lesson, and consequently, retain more content knowledge. The unique ability of simulations to isolate and emphasize specific skills allows students to practice and master simple tasks without all of the complexity of real-world variables. This model of teaching is ideal for differentiating, scaffolded instruction, and developing intrinsic motivation in students.
There are a few reasons why the use of digital simulations lends itself to teaching literacy skills across all content areas. First, because digital simulations closely resemble video games, many students will be excited and willing to engage in the activity. According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 69% of teenagers reported playing video games each week. In fact, gaming is the top daily activity for pre-teens and teens, with an average of 52 minutes each day spent gaming. Since many students spend so much time recreationally gaming, it makes sense for teachers to tap into this innate interest and begin to reflect their students’ interests by incorporating digital simulations and games into the classroom.
Secondly, many of games that students spend hours playing require them to engage with and internalize complex, scenario-specific vocabulary. Because games and simulations are so interactive, they lend themselves to vocabulary development (Gee, 2009). Students engaged in ecological simulations begin to think, speak, and write like real ecologists because the vocabulary is embedded within the game and using it is necessary for success in the activity. Therefore, simulations become an ideal way to help improve students’ disciplinary literacy skills.