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5 Devising your own SGRP: some points for consideration

This section provides guidance for the design of simulations, games and role-plays in economics. Six key issues are introduced and discussed. The first four points are relevant to simulations, games and role-plays, whilst the last two points focus particularly on role-plays.

5.1 Devising clear guidelines

Clear guidelines are crucial to successful SGRP. If students are to learn independently, they must feel secure and certain in what they are being asked to do. The guidelines should certainly describe the main stages in the assignment and the criteria that will be used in assessment. The assignment briefs for the Virtual Economy and International Trade case studies illustrate the type of guidance that is required. Briefing guidelines are even more important for role-play than for games and simulations. This is because the tutor relinquishes more control in role-plays and it is important that students are able to work within a structure that generates a worthwhile experience for learning. Guidance notes for a role-play might take the form of outlining a character profile or identifying key aspects of knowledge that the role-player needs to consider in role. The detail included in the guidance notes may be varied according to students’ prior attainment and skills, and their familiarity with this way of working.

5.2 The importance of debriefing

The process of debriefing students is crucial for ensuring its success. It allows the tutor and the student to reflect upon what has taken place, analysing the consequences of actions and the quality of arguments. It is also an opportunity for the tutor to correct errors, probe simplifications and expose assumptions. Consequently, debriefing is an essential part of the process of consolidating new knowledge and deepening understanding. Without it, students might walk away uncertain of the lessons they have learned. Debriefing frequently takes far longer than expected and needs to be carefully planned (as in case study 2). As a general rule, it is advisable to plan to spend 30 minutes debriefing for an hour’s activity.

Debriefing begins with helping the students to articulate their perceptions of their experience during the SGRP. This provides a basis for helping them to analyse those perceptions, looking for similarities and differences, causation and argument. Only in the final stages of the debriefing are students ready to examine how their interpretation of their experience can be related to standard reasoning in economic theory. This approach to developing students’ thinking reverses the traditional order of ‘present theory and then follow up with applications of the theory to practice’. A rationale for teaching economics in this way is presented in McCormick et al. (1994). It can also be helpful to think of this approach to debriefing in the terms used by theorists of ‘experiential learning’ (e.g. Kolb and Allen, 1984). Students are also more likely to develop a considered and reflective evaluation if they write up their experience, either as a formative exercise or as part of a summative assessment process.

5.3 Realism

If students regard a simulation as ‘unrealistic’, they are unlikely to regard its predictions as relevant to their understanding of the real world. In developing this argument, Bartlett and Amsler (1979) suggest that to be considered realistic a simulation must first be realistic in appearance. As Lowry (1999) argues, a successful SGRP depends upon ‘Creating a realistic setting [which] changes the mood of the class and allows students to feel more comfortable adopting a role’ (p. 125). Bartlett and Amsler (1979) also argue that a simulation must be realistic in its internal process – that is, it must imitate how the real world works in practice and produce realistic outcomes.

This poses an inherent problem in using simulations in teaching and learning. If the objective of teaching is to help students to recognise that the current way they interpret the world is inadequate, then teaching must present students with ways of thinking about the world that are different from the way they currently think. If this objective is pursued through a simulation, the simulation must present a model that is inconsistent with students’ current thinking and there is a danger that students will dismiss the new model as unrealistic (Davies, 1994).

5.4 Assessment

The case studies in this chapter illustrate ways in which SGRP can be used in assessment. A key principle followed in these case studies is that the assessment focuses on students’ reflection on their experience rather than on their performance in the simulation, game or role-play. For example, in the Virtual Economy simulation, students are asked to reflect upon the problems facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In answering this question, students are drawing upon their experience with the simulation, but they are not limited by their success in achieving particular outcomes in the simulation. Students’ learning through a role-play might be assessed by asking them to identify what they believe they have learned from their experience in the role-play.

When roles are more controlled, a wider range of assessment strategies become possible. This is exemplified in case study 3, where the role-play does not involve participating in a debate, but using the role to provide a structure for analysing a problem. When this approach is adopted, it is also useful to ask students to provide a critique of the way they have acted out the role. Students’ ability to step out of role in their analysis is important to the development of their understanding of the subject.

5.5 Role-taking and role-playing

In role-plays, students attempt to increase their understanding of circumstances and roles that are beyond their immediate experience. However, the capacity of a student to enter into these new circumstances in a way that generates a useful stimulus for learning depends on the relevance of their prior knowledge and experience. Role-plays are much more likely to be successful if they place students in settings with which they have some familiarity through their reading or general knowledge. The more diverse the role you are asking someone to play, the more detail concerning the role you will be forced to give. For example, student knowledge of a trade union representative in a collective bargaining role-play is likely to be limited and require far more guidance than if you were to simply ask the student to play the role of a worker. Students also need clear guidance through sharply defined scenarios and roles.

5.6 Using scripted role-play

Each role-play defines a setting and characters (or roles) through which a story will be developed. What happens when the students take on their roles is uncertain. One solution might be to script the role-play in a more formal and ordered way. It is possible, for example, to specify who speaks when, and identify the ideas, arguments and information that will be conveyed in each speech, without providing the exact words of each speech. The task for each student is to articulate the ideas, information and argument in a way that they feel is consistent with the role. Within such a framework the tutor maintains strong control over the focus of the role-play, while at the same time allowing the student to explore the role through their control over the exact language of the speech. According to Alden (2000), ‘The benefit of this form of role play is that it gives scope for students to reflect on their learning, while giving the instructor security from the fear that the activity would “get out of hand” and wander from the desired focus of the role play’ (p. 128).

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