Using Classroom Simulations as an Active Learning Technique

College educators have many goals for students; we want them to acquire more knowledge and be better critical thinkers, but also to feel empowered and energized about their future contribution to society. Students that are motivated and ambitious are more likely to pursue personal opportunities and inventive ideas. This type of energy and focus also contributes to the problem-solving capacity of society as a whole. Although a positive attitude often comes from within the student or outside the classroom, the structure of learning also has an impact.

For the global environmental politics classroom, the problem of student attitudes is especially acute: students of global environmental governance are particularly prone to negative emotional reactions, including feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which can engender apathy and cynicism.  Students come to believe that the complexity and depth of problems like climate change make effective action impossible. Students who do not believe a problem can be solved are unlikely to seek solutions to that problem in their post-college careers. Using active learning techniques like Simulations can combat these attitudes, by giving students the opportunity to collectively investigate and tackle barriers to international action.

I designed a Simulation for the last week of my fall 2017 “Politics of the Ocean” class, because I noticed that the students often left class in despair. Solutions to over-fishing, Model United Nations simulation with students sitting at tables with flags of the represented countries.plastic pollution, dead zones, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and other ocean issues seemed out of reach because of political and economic barriers. The number and complexity of ocean issues seemed overwhelming. And yet, we knew that the United Nations was gearing up to negotiate a new treaty to govern the high seas. This provided me with the opportunity to design a politics Simulation that hewed as close to the real world as possible, where students could practice negotiating a treaty that addressed many of the problems they had learned about in class.

The basic features of the course dictated the options for Simulation design – I had 15 students, and we met twice a week for a total of 2.5 hours. I started by assigning students to polity teams in the week before the Simulation began. I choose countries that have had the most influence on ocean governance historically, and groups that would likely have influence in the upcoming negotiations: The United States, China, Russia, the G77 coalition, Singapore, and NGOs. I asked students to do the assigned readings for the next week – each of which contained a specific proposal for ocean governance – with their team in mind.

The Simulation was divided into two days. On day one, students worked within their teams to answer a series of questions like “Who are the primary ocean interest groups in your country?” “What are your priorities for ocean governance?” and “What treaty design best serves your interests?” Students were instructed to work with their teammates, and to do supplementary in-class research to help flesh out their positions. Some teams had specific questions: the NGOs had to decide which NGOs to represent, and the China team had to decide whether to negotiate with the G77, or on its own. The Singapore team had additional questions about how the negotiations ought to be run, because of Singapore’s historic role as a leader in organizing past Law of the Sea negotiations.

On day two, students entered the classroom to discover groups of tables designated with small flags. Singapore ran the negotiations while I took notes, with some minor interventions. Each team started with an opening statement about their key interests and main concerns, with short rebuttals following. Then Singapore asked each team to submit a list of priority topics, and chose the top four. While the original plan was to address each in turn through speeches and open discussion, the students ended up deciding to address all the issues simultaneously. In the last ten minutes, Singapore collected specific treaty language proposals. Each of six new rules was voted on individually, and those that with a majority of teams affirming became the agreed upon treaty.

I designed this Simulation to achieve attitudinal goals in three ways. First, role playing required students to formulate prescriptions from the descriptions of ocean problems and governance models they had learned about in class. The idea is that practicing advocacy will help students recognize that they have informed opinions about ocean issues, and see themselves as agents of change. Second, the format shows students that complexity is not the same as intractability. The two-day design allows group work to break down the structure of a collective action problem, construct a policy agenda and negotiation strategy, and consider various policy models described in the literature. Third, the negotiations allow students to directly encounter barriers to consensus formation, instead of speculating about everything that could hold up an agreement. Confronting obstacles to agreement this way may illustrate the utility of issue-linkages, and demonstrate that there are coalitions willing to move forward.

I assessed the achievement of attitudinal learning outcomes using a short pre- and post-Simulation survey, which asked students to rate their level of agreement with statements like “All relevant parties can get what they want from the oceans” and “The situation in the high seas is too complicated for effective management.” The survey also asked students to rank the importance of different barriers to an international treaty, like “political will” and “public education.” The final questions were open-ended, and asked students to use one word to describe the situation in the ocean, and also how they feel about it. While the survey results showed a slight improvement in optimism, I was surprised by the fact that students started out more optimistic than I expected.

The biggest mistake I made in the design of this Simulation was asking the Singapore team to take a leadership role by designing the basic structure of the negotiations, and leading the class on day two. Although I chose two students with obvious leadership qualities, they found it difficult to command authority among the teams, and to push for efficiency in negotiations. They also seemed displeased that they had a “special” role, and more interested in participating as a regular team. Most of the students reported wanting to start the Simulation earlier in the semester, so they could have more time getting into the details of constructing a workable solution to collective problems in the ocean.

This type of Simulation is relatively easy to design and implement, and there exists a broad literature relating game design to specific cognitive and attitudinal goals. Even though this Simulation was imperfect, students reported on their course evaluations that they appreciated doing something different, and having the chance to work through obstacles to consensus as a group. And because this type of Simulation can be used with a larger class size (just add more teams), I know that the lessons from this class can be used to improve the Simulation for the future.

Elizabeth Mendenall, PhD candidate, Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth Mendenhall is a PhD candidate in International Relations. Her dissertation concerns obstacles to effective governance in the global commons, specifically the ocean, atmosphere, and outer space. She will be starting as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in the Fall of 2017.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons