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2 Why use simulations, games and role-play?

In this section we will review the main arguments both for and against the use of SGRP as a teaching and learning strategy. Although, in many respects, simulations, games and role-play offer distinct strengths and weaknesses, in a majority of cases arguments both for and against their use are the same. This section will therefore evaluate SGRP in general terms, making specific reference to a particular approach only where necessary.

Supporters of the use of SGRP as a teaching strategy are frequently found to argue that its greatest virtue is that students are encouraged to reflect on their knowledge and draw together the various dimensions of their course of study (Alden, 1999; Oberhofer, 1999). It is, however, also recognised (Alden, 1999) that there is always a threat of simplification, where students fail to draw upon or make optimum use of the knowledge they have been taught. The issue for the tutor is whether sufficient safeguards can be initiated to minimise such simplification, such as the construction of clear guidance notes (see below).

In addition, SGRP often require the tutor to relinquish some control over the process and outcomes of learning. Are students reflecting upon their knowledge in the most effective way? Francis and Byrne (1999) suggest that this drawback in using SGRP might in fact be turned into an advantage. They argue that one of the greatest benefits they found when using SGRP in their teaching programme was that it helped reveal ‘sticking points in student understanding’ (p. 209), in the light of which they were able to rectify the design of their course.

As well as encouraging students to reflect upon their theoretical understanding of economic concepts and arguments, SGRP is an excellent approach by which to develop in students a greater appreciation of role and responsibility. As a teaching method, SGRP can encourage students to empathise with the position and feelings of others and to look beyond their immediate assumptions and expectations. As Freeman and Capper (1998) remark following an evaluation of their Web-based simulation role-play, students ‘achieved a deeper understanding of their own views and those of others’ (p. 12). When evaluating issues of role and responsibility, it is important for the tutor to recognise that roles might also be distorted and stereotyped, and might in certain cases fail to reflect an accurate perception of those whom it might claim to represent. In such cases, careful debriefing is essential.

Many studies (Francis and Byrne, 1999; Oberhofer, 1999) have claimed that SGRP, especially when group based, have contributed to a positive change in classroom dynamics. It has been suggested (Francis and Byrne, 1999) that they help break down barriers and stimulates a greater level of long-term interactivity between students. Problems, however, might arise if students fail to take the SGRP seriously, seeing it merely as a break from ‘real’ teaching. Oberhofer (1999) remarks upon this issue when devising a history of economic thought class based totally upon role-play. He notes that when devising the course he had to consider not only whether those studying the course would have the ability to make the role-play work, but also whether they would be willing to take on the responsibility such a course would demand and fully ‘engage in the enterprise’ (p. 113).

Supporters of SGRP (Neral and Ray, 1995; Lowry, 1999) claim that such an approach to teaching and learning can give life and relevance to academically descriptive material. Remote theoretical concepts can be given life by placing them in a situation with which students are familiar. For example, understanding the workings of the market might be far more effectively relayed to students through a simple game rather than a theoretical discussion of the principles of demand and supply.

Neral and Ray (1995), in discussing the merits of teaching costs and production via a game, remark that ‘many of the students in our introductory courses have difficulty in dealing with the high level of abstraction that permeates economic theory, [and] it can be extremely helpful to provide these students with concrete examples of the phenomena that the theories attempt to describe’ (p. 170). They dismiss simply giving real-world examples as illustration, claiming that students have different experiences and many will be unable to relate to the examples given. However, the use of classroom games, they claim, ‘ensures that all students have at least some level of common experience upon which to base their understanding of the relevant theory, [and second] it actively involves the student in the learning process’ (p. 170).

As well as knowledge and roles, SGRP can contribute positively to the development of key transferable skills, particularly in terms of communication and social skills. Depending upon the organisation of the activity, it may be possible to develop skills in recognising and presenting arguments, presenting to an audience and working collaboratively in a group. The literature on SGRP (Francis and Byrne, 1999; Alden, 1999; Gremmen and Potters, 1997) suggests that the typical use of SGRP involves group work, and as such draws upon its relative strengths and weaknesses. Most SGRP, such as those highlighted in the case studies in section 4, require students to solve problems through analysis, synthesis and evaluation: all high level skills.

The final issue to raise in this section concerns the development and running of SGRP. Preparing, running and debriefing SGRP often requires more time and effort from the tutor than a traditional approach to teaching. Oberhofer (1999) and Lowry (1999) both remark on the high start-up costs that SGRP can sometimes generate. The issue that requires resolving is whether SGRP improve learning sufficiently to justify this additional effort. Evidence suggests (Gremmen and Potters, 1997; Rodgers, 1996) that where evaluations have been considered in this respect, the gains from using SGRP have been found to justify the costs that such teaching methods often entail.

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3 When to use SGRP