Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part IV: Simulations

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Throughout my career as a high school teacher and more recently as a college professor, I have successfully employed simulations of democratic processes into my classrooms and lecture halls. I placed a premium on authenticity with a deep-seated belief that students learn by doing and build knowledge cooperatively.

Whether it was simulating the 2000 Presidential Election through a school-wide Electoral College (which proved to be incredibly timely for obvious reasons) or a semester-long legislative simulation, students role played citizens and politicians alike in preparation for real world rights and responsibilities.

Although my own research suggests that simulations help build students’ civic knowledge and skills when employed occasionally, nearly two-thirds of students report never experiencing them (see pp. 154-160).

Student Scores on the 2010 NAEP Civics Assessment by Frequency of Exposure to Simulations (Role-Playing, Mock Trials, or Dramas)


Let’s be clear about what makes an effective simulation.

First, students should practice citizenship through role-playing, scenario consideration, or problem-based case solutions. This can take place in person or virtually, as several civic-oriented games fit this description. Regardless of format, student participation must be active.

Second, simulations should be of sufficient duration for students to learn challenging skills and concepts. This may entail several days, weeks, or even an entire semester (stay tuned for Mary Ellen’s post on Wednesday).

Third, like service learning, simulations should have a reflective component. Students should discuss what they learned in the simulation and apply it to other contexts, including the local community.

Finally simulations are underappreciated as an assessment tool. They can be used formatively to gauge student understanding of democratic processes and practices, or summatively to measure mastery of these concepts.

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