Delivering Complex Simulated Exercises to Large Student Groups 

by Dr Martin Robson, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies

Simulated exercises are a proven pedagogical tool to provide students with a ‘sandpit’ to test concepts and theories in a simulated real-world context for the purpose of pedagogical progression, personal training and the reinforcement of skills and behaviours. Simulations involve participants to collaborate in teams, deploying a set of skills and behaviours to manage multiple concurrent time sensitive tasks. Simulations provide high quality employability skills, replicating some of the tasks included in UK Civil Service Assessment Centres. With significant experience of delivering simulations to cohorts of 20-30 students this Incubator Discovery Grant explored methods for delivering effective simulations to large cohorts of up to 100 students.  

Two workshops were held:

Empathy Mapping Exercise – Students produced their own Empathy Map from their experience of participating in a Simulation using Aftershock: A Humanitarian Crisis Boardgame. Critical common themes identified were:

  • Behaviours: teamworking and ‘who does what’ within the team, learning to manage disagreements within a team, achieving targets within the simulation.
  • Skills: multitasking between playing the simulation and the set of tasks set, developing leadership skills, develop thinking ‘outside of the box’.
  • Employability: gaining experience valuable for public and private sector assessment centres.
Empathy Mapping Exercise

‘I personally found that the process itself of creating an empathy map helped me to reflect on the Aftershock Simulation and made me analyse what I got out of it. During the simulation itself I do remember you saying how if we had more time, you would ask us to reflect on what we learnt – in a way I found creating an empathy map a lot more beneficial. It made me take a step back and assess different aspects of the simulation and what I learnt from it, making me realise that what I took away was the ability to transfer concepts and roles to real-world situations, developing my interpersonal and diplomatic skills.’

Feedback from a participant, Year 3 Politics IR student

Systems Mapping Exercise – students worked in two small groups to produce a Systems Map to identify the critical benefits of the simulation to be retained in upscaling it from a small group of students (10-20) to larger groups (e.g. 100) Critical common themes / risks identified were:

  • Generating an immersive environment: this was identified as the critical element by both groups and a key risk that the immersive experience might be lost in upscaling the participant numbers to 100.  Generating an immersive environment includes the preparation of material (to generate the context / scenario) and communication with participants in advance of the Simulation, the physical location and set up (including elements of ‘theatre/stage management’), briefings before and during the simulation, injection of new material into the simulation.
  • Active participation: this involved the process of selection/recruitment for a simulation, ideal group sizes (one group thought 5-6 people the ideal size), the composition of groups so pre-existing skills, knowledge and behaviours are spread across groups.
  • Participant motivation / managing participant expectations: what are the benefits for students, clear communication of these to students in advance and reinforcement of them during and after the simulation.
  • A Sandbox: simulations are not a summative assessment, they provide a sandbox for testing ideas and skills, participants need to know they are not being marked and that even ‘failing or losing in simulation/game terms’ provides a valuable experience.

Next Steps

Just one: to run a large group simulation for up to 100 students to implement the critical themes identified. The intent would be to deploy this to the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges in a future Academic Year.   

Dr Martin Robson:

Discovery Grants 2022-23

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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