A simulation is, at its most basic, “an artificial representation of real conditions.”¹ Simulation learning is now used extensively for all sorts of training, but is particularly useful in fields where there is a danger that trainees could cause harm to others or themselves, or damage expensive equipment.

What is simulation learning or simulation in education?

Simulation in education is “an instructional strategy that offers the opportunity to learn in a realistic environment and practice problem-solving skills without danger.”²

Educators have been using simulations for a couple of decades now, and studying the outcomes to determine how simulations can best enhance student learning—what engages students, what encourages retention of the material, etc.

There are a few different schools of thought, but the “constructive” approach to learning holds that the student “should not be a passive participant, but should actively engage in the experience, which should allow exploration and encourage reflection.”³

Simulations in education support learning because they allow learners to “directly manipulate a system and to observe the effect of the change, providing a form of intrinsic feedback.”³ They are cognitive tools that allow students to explore “what if” scenarios and test hypotheses.

Simulation learning provides better retention

There is evidence that shows that learners retain more information if they learn by doing, rather than just by reading or listening.² This is the underlying rationale for using simulation learning.

Some interesting research is now showing that learning through simulation does indeed help students retain information better than traditional lecturing, in which the teacher just “talks at” the students. Scientists at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) analyzed students’ brain activity while they were attending a classroom lecture, and found it was almost zero!  (That’s about the same as for watching TV.)

Apparently, the human brain uses the right hemisphere for learning new things (for creativity and images) but processes speech using the left hemisphere. So just listening to someone talking doesn’t mean that a person will retain that knowledge.

Two other studies found that simulation learning helped learners retain knowledge. The first was a study of medical residents that compared standard slide-based lecture and active classroom formats to high-fidelity simulation. The study found that simulation and the active classroom show significantly better knowledge retention than the slide-based lecture format.5

The second study, also in the medical field, found that students who used simulation-based learning to learn how to apply a special orthotic device to infants with a developmental hip problem retained knowledge and skills better than the control group that was not exposed to the simulation.6

Ways of using simulation in education

Simulations can be used in a number of ways to help student learning:7

  • The simulation can be used on its own, if it is programmed to provide students with guidance in the form of hints and to give feedback to student answers. In such a case, the simulation has to be very well thought out and provide for all different kinds of potential responses from users.
  • A human expert (such as a teacher, peer, coach, etc.) can help learners use the simulation.
  • Simulation learning activities can be strongly “scaffolded,” that is, provide opportunities for users to form their own hypotheses and move progressively toward a stronger understanding (e.g., as in guided discovery learning simulation)

Many educational experts agree that simulation learning should be scaffolded—that they should provide successive levels of temporary support,7 such as modules that build on one another, to help students learn complex concepts by breaking up the concept into separate, manageable parts, and helping them learn each part.  

Simulations must be designed with care, so that students are not merely engaging with the “game,” but with the underlying content.

If human instruction is going to be provided along with a simulation, there is some research that shows it is better for participants to use the simulation first and receive the instruction afterwards. 8

Advantages of computer-based instructional simulations

Not all simulations are computer-based. Sometimes they involve elaborately recreated environments, as in the case of flight simulators, or large pieces of production line machinery retired and re-wired for educational purposes. Often they involve mannequins (as in medical simulations).

Because they are so elaborate, these high-fidelity simulations can be too costly to be practical. Computer-based instructional simulations use software to create a simulated reality, which is far less expensive to implement. Computer simulations have a number of advantages:2

  1. They enhance learners’ motivation. Most of the up and coming workforce are Millennials who have been raised on video and computer games. They learn better with computer simulations, and report more satisfaction with the learning process.
  2. They result in a good transfer of learning (that is, the ability of learners to transfer learning from simulation to real life situations).
  3. They provide an authentic learning environment (given that the best way to learn to do something is to do it.)
  4. They are physically safe, so a beginner can’t cause harm to themselves, others, or equipment.
  5. They provide a huge cost savings over using the real environment (some equipment is just too costly to allow beginners to learn by doing) and high-fidelity physical simulations.

Simutech Multimedia

Simutech Multimedia’s Training System teaches a proven, systematic method for troubleshooting electrical faults. The modules present content in manageable chunks, from basic to more advanced, providing students with guidance and immediate feedback, testing their knowledge, and then continually building on that knowledge.

The modules can be used on their own or in a classroom setting. The system gives managers the ability to track trainees’ progress, and see which students are ready to move on, and which students need more practice. There are over 300 faults to practice on, so trainees are well prepared to encounter real equipment. Once students are trained, maintenance exercises help keep their new skills sharp.

Staff who are properly trained in a systematic method don’t need to use trial and error to repair faults. They troubleshoot quickly, safely and efficiently, without replacing parts unnecessarily, and sparing businesses costly downtime. Less downtime means better production numbers and, ultimately, a lot less stress for managers.


  1. Rothwell, W. J., & Kazanas, H. C. (1992). Mastering the instructional design process: A systematic approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Husain, N. (2010). Computer-based instructional simulations in education: Why and how. Unpublished article. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272505693_Computer-Based_Instructional_Simulations_in_Education_Why_and_How
  3. Thomas, R. C. & Milligan, C. D. (2004). Putting teachers in the loop: Tools for creating and customising simulations . Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2004(15). http://doi.org/10.5334/2004-15
  4. GameLearn. (2016). Game-based learning vs. classroom training: Or why learning through playing is the better option. Retrieved from: https://www.game-learn.com/game-based-learning-vs-classroom-training/
  5. Raleigh, M. F., Wilson, G. A., Moss, D. A., et al. (2018). Same content, different methods: comparing lecture, engaged classroom, and simulation. Family Medicine, 50(2), 100–105.
  6. Moktar, J., Bradley, C. S. Maxwell, A., Wedge, J. H., Kelley, S. P., Murnaghan, M. L. (2016). Skill acquisition and retention following simulation-based training in Pavlik Harness application. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 98(10), 866–870. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123626/
  7. Schneider, D. K. (Ed.). (2014). Educational (instructional) design models. EduTech_Wiki. Retrieved from: http://bigbook.or.kr/bbs/data/file/bo02/1535291005_MQ8Nsgjn_Educational_28instructional29_design_models_Daniel_K._Schneider.pdf
  8. Zendejas, B., Cook, D A., & Farley, D. R. (2010). Teaching first or teaching last: Does the timing matter in simulation-based surgical scenarios? Journal of Surgical Education, 67(6), 432–437. Retrieved from http://astec.arizona.edu/sites/astec.arizona.edu/files/pdf_files/SurgerySim&Didactic.pdf

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