Connecting with the Community: Victor Asal on Classroom Simulations

By, Amy Whitaker, Senior Marketing Manager, SAGE

Whitaker PhotoVictor Asal is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Chair of Public Administration at the University of Albany. Victor recently received the CQ Press Award for Teaching Innovation for his work in classroom simulations. Interested in learning more about his teaching methods, I asked him the questions below.


Q. How do classroom simulations help instructors fulfill classroom Asal_Victor_2119_crop150pxgoals?

Often students are asked to apply theories or arguments to cases that they either know little about or are not strongly invested in- which may impact their answer.  People’s perspective change when they have a stake in the game so to speak.   Simulations or games create a situation where each student has some stake in how the simulation develops and its outcome. When it comes time to analyze a simulation, students can be insiders looking out or across, unlike a case where they’re are outsiders looking in. This allows them to be “lab rats in their own experiments”  and to have a much richer portfolio to explore when doing analysis.


Q. How can instructors give students room to be creative with classroom simulations?

Depending on how the simulation is designed, students can have a great deal of creativity in responding to the challenges that the simulation presents.  Some simulations work very well when the instructor responds to questions such as, “can I do this?” with answers such as, “if the rules don’t say no you can do anything that is possible.”   It really depends on what the instructor is trying to get the students to experience.   In a prisoner’s dilemma game, the choices are intentionally very narrow to limit the options of the students and to replicate a theoretic argument. Legislative simulations, however, can be a hotbed of creativity for students as they come up with different ways to cut deals.

Q. Some may say that simulating real life events trivializes them. How would you respond to such critiques?

I think it depends on how the instructor engages the students with the nature of the material they’re interacting with. Engaging with issues like atrocities or discrimination can make students see things they may have never seen before in a way that really touches them.   There is a risk that some students will not engage or will see this as trivializing but if the instructor clarifies the purpose of the simulation and its need for engagement, then I believe the effort is worth the risk.

Q. Some students really ‘get into character’ when participating in classroom simulations. Has this caused any problems for you in the past? If so, how did you handle them?

I have some colleagues who had problem develop from this but I have not.  In my experience, when students ‘get into character’ they often take the simulation more seriously, which enriches the entire simulation.  This has led to some very heated conversations in the debriefing but these are usually very productive heated conversations.

Q. For the simulations that you have used repeatedly, did you find that the experience was typically the same? Why or why not?

Very often yes- but sometimes resoundingly no. I have a simulation called the Hobbes game that I use regularly and I would say that 95% of the time the results are exactly the same.  However, that remaining 5% of the time can quite interesting and by interesting I mean challenging. I think the key reason why this happens is the very thing that makes simulations so worthwhile- the outcome is a product of an interaction between the instructor, the material and the students. And students- unlike textbooks or movies or other teaching materials- are human, and humans can be very, very unpredictable.   Because of this unpredictability it is important for the instructor to think through a plan B in case everything goes wrong. The instructor should also consider how pedagogical lessons can be taught if things go in a very different direction from what was expected.

Q. What’s a common mistake you see instructors make when designing or enacting simulations?

I think a key mistake that people often make is not having any back-up plan or an unwillingness to improvise during those times when a simulation does not go according to plan.   I think that having a sense of how to play “the game of teaching” as an instructor is a very useful tool for successfully using simulations on a regular basis.

Read past Connecting with the Community interviews

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