The Value of using Simulations at Universities

“The majority of University Finance Labs have become nothing more than just extensions of the University library.  They are used as eye-candy to drag prospective students and alumni past to obtain enrollment or donations.  Unfortunately, they are rarely used for experiential learning and teaching.”  Finance Lab Director (at a major university in the US) June 2014


Years ago the majority of students was about the same age and attended traditional face-to-face classrooms. Today,  undergraduate students can range from 17 year old high school graduates, to 28 year old “non-traditional” students, to 40 year old single working mothers who may be taking the same classes as their own children and can be involved in a variety of classroom settings. In this mix we find a group of students born between 1982 and 2000 who are dubbed the “Millennial” generation. Although not inherently different than any other student, the Millennial generation has characteristics unique to the digital age.

Born 1982 through 2000, Millennials are the most diverse generation we have had to teach, thus our approaches to teaching must be diverse. “Millennials expect to be engaged in their learning, they do not do well being passive learners. If you (as a teacher/university) do not have technology that will be part of their learning, they will go somewhere else where they can be engaged with, and interactive with, technology. Millennials perceive a sharp contrast between their comfort level of technology and the technology comfort level of their teachers” (Starlink, 2004). These technologies include the cell phones, computers and the Internet.

The trend toward Millennials using iPods and laptop computers rather than desktop computers reflects their preference toward a more portable learning environment. Millennials use texting and instant messaging (IM) to communicate with peers and set up meetings and use email to clarify course information and expectations. The Internet allows students to “express ideas that they would not have voiced in class” and is the preferred method of conducting research (Starlink, 2004, p. 10).

Traditional approaches to teaching may not address the learning preferences of the Millennial student. Lectures and traditional classroom and laboratory environments, albeit typical (and comfortable) from an educator’s point of view, can be enhanced through online and electronic modes. For example, MIT’s microelectronics lab that is available 24×7, where students can conduct lab work at their convenience and the University of Virginia’s interactive Web site “The Valley of the Shadow,” which allows students to draw their own conclusions about the Civil War through researching original material and data via a variety of sources (Starlink, 2004). Students can be more engaged and motivated to learn by providing authentic learning experiences instead of “lecturing” the facts. We should consider creating learner-centered classroom environments to engage Millennials.

Games and simulations can “help learners visualize complex systems” such as magnifying an environment otherwise not possible in some situations. For example, “seeing” the inside of a cell, changing the speed of chemical reactions,or visualizing an acoustical environment can help students better understand the environment (Starlink, 2004).

Considering the fact that many of our students are working full- and part-time jobs while taking classes, Universities may need to “repurpose” their teaching practices. Similar to the ways students may have to juggle time committed to work and studies, so too, faculty may need to approach the classroom with new and inventive ways to impart learning. To address these new approaches, faculty can offer deliberate and meaningful learning experiences and opportunities where students can see the connections between new material and real world applications.