Integrating a business simulation into your course syllabus


It is time to refresh courses and rethink your course contents. Could using a business simulation improve the course experience? Think through these three questions before trying out a simulation. 


CC0 creative commons license. Photo by Mohamed Hassan.

1. What is the scope of the simulation on my course?

At one extreme, some strategy and marketing simulation games are intended to be played throughout a whole course or at least a major part of it. Many of these simulations are competitive in nature and they go through a number of distinct management topics. Given the complexity of these products, they are practical only in courses where students expect to spend a lot of time immersing in the simulation.  

At the other extreme, some simulations can be played through in 30-60 minutes. These tend to focus on one or two key concepts or a specific topic. Yet, even a simple simulation can cover plenty of ground. For example, a 60-minute negotiations simulation can touch on most of the topics covered in a typical negotiations course.  

If you are new to simulations, I would recommend you to first pick a simulation with playtime of no more than 60 minutes, relating to a limited number of your course learning goals. By limiting the simulation to one session of the course, you create diverse learning experiences for students with fairly low risk and low initial time investment. 

2. What is the function of the simulation on the course? 

Sometimes it makes sense to incorporate simulations mainly for the sake of variety and novelty. I often teach intensive executive courses that run from 9am to 4pm for multiple days. In that context, having a simulation after the lunch break on one of the days is a life saver. I have never had anything but good feedback on this. The Zoom fatigue associated with virtual teaching has only increased the attractiveness of distractions. But simulations should also support your teaching, either by preparing students to discuss theoretical ideas or by allowing them to apply them.

Simulations can be used as preparation for classroom discussion, akin to course pre-readings. This seems to be particularly common way to use teamwork and leadership simulations. As students play through the simulation, they encounter dilemmas, make choices, and receive feedback. These experiences provide a common ground for versatile classroom discussion. Experienced instructors can bend the simulation to discuss diverse ideas. One of my colleagues regularly used a team marketing strategy simulation to discuss the role of emotions and biases in students’ decision-making. For this purpose, it is a good idea to schedule the simulation early on in the course.

Alternatively, simulations can be used to motivate students to reflect on and absorb the course readings and lectures. In particular if the simulation pits students directly against each other or provides scoring, it can increase student interest in understanding the theories. I have personally been reluctant to use simulation scores as a criterion for course grading, but this is clearly an option.  

Finally, you can also use the simulation as a way to hammer home the course learnings towards the end of the course. Some of the most recent simulations give extensive feedback to students on their performance. These products are a great way for students to revisit course contents, first by playing the game and then by receiving personalized commentary on the performance.  

3. Where and how do the students play the simulation?

Simulation playtime varies from 30 minutes to more than 12 hours. You should consider carefully whether this ought to happen in the classroom or outside of it. There are multiple considerations, and the answer should probably depend on the norms of your institution as much as the details of your course.

First, consider whether you want the simulation to be completed individually, in pairs, or in larger teams. If the simulation is done individually, it is generally a good idea to assign it in-between classes. Some students will be much faster in completing the simulation than others, leading to potential problems in the classroom. If you run simulation in pairs or teams, you have to consider whether you can your ask students to organize meeting in-between the sessions. Particularly in executive MBA, finding common time outside classroom hours can be problematic. 

Your choice should also depend on the support your students require. How easy is the simulation to use and how reliable is it technically? If you expect students to handle the simulation without problems, you should probably assign them to play it outside the classroom hours. The same is true, however, if you run a very large class and expect your students to have numerous issues. Especially with a teaching assistant, you may be able to address a large number student questions and problems via email, but resolving dozens of issues in the classroom can be problematic.

Finally, think how you connect the simulation to classroom discussions and assignments. A fairly small class allows you to reflect on the simulation experience and learnings through a classroom discussion. This tends to work better immediately after the students have completed the simulation, suggesting you to run it during classroom hours. In larger classes, however, it may be more effective to ask students to write a reflection essay on their experience with the simulation. In such case, it makes more sense to ask students to complete the simulation and to compose an essay prior to the class where you review and discuss the key learnings.

Be bold and experiment! 

Business simulations have greatly improved over the past few years, and there are now compelling products available on all business school topic areas. I would recommend you to begin by using a fairly simple simulation just the way you would use a case study—as a basis for classroom discussions. Used in this way, you do not really have to adapt your course learning objectives, as long as you find the right simulation. 

Over time, as you gain experience and confidence with running simulations and debriefing students, you can lean more heavily on a simulation product and adapt your course syllabus to take advantage of a great simulation product. Most simulations come with great teaching notes and support materials that enable you to create a great syllabus with clear learning goals and even student assessments.