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An excerpt from my upcoming TD at Work guide, "Creating Effective Simulations for Learning"

Updated: Dec 29, 2022



I just finished my draft for the TD at Work guide I have been invited to write for ATD's TD at Work collection!


The full guide will be published in March 2023 and for sale on ATD's website.


Here's a sneak peak:




Types of simulations for learning

What type of simulation you design will depend largely on your content, your modality, and your development tools. Let’s review the primary types of simulations for learning, including the content they work best for and any major development considerations.


Software Sims

Software simulations are digital simulations that screen capture the software to produce screenshots or video of using the application functions which form the bulk of the content for the simulation. Programs like Camtasia, Captivate, or Storyline can be used to create a video tutorial (show me), then an interactive experience (which can be graded or not) which simulates the functions by having the user click on appropriate areas on the image of the software program (try me). This is frequently called the “show-me-try-me” approach and is typically very effective, which is why it is used by so many software vendors for their customer training.

Since there’s often a great disparity in the technological proficiency of learners these days, it’s ideal to make portions optional – some users may want to skip a video tutorial before the quiz if they already feel confident that they can navigate to where they need to go. Then if they don’t pass said quiz, you could always redirect them back to the specific content they didn’t get right. If they do pass after skipping, you don’t waste their time by forcing them to watch a video or clicking boxes in a practice arena, they prove proficiency on the quiz, the training is marked complete on the LMS, and everyone is happy.


Good software sims make any non-diegetic (non-diegetic being not native to the media – so in the case of software training any highlights, text, shapes, buttons, or instructions; diegetic being anything belonging to the original media, like the buttons already in the software program. These terms are often used in virtual reality development to distinguish interruptive objects like popups, notifications, buttons, menus and other interactive elements, from objects that are part of the virtual environment) items of high contrast for visibility and preferably animated on entrance and exit to draw the eye to the area of importance. Software simulations provide a safe place to practice functions with or without guidance, depending on how you decide to build your sim. You could simply have video followed by simulation quiz, or develop a sandbox environment for them to just click around, explore, and get comfortable, or both. Articulate Storyline automates a lot of software simulation development and can make it super easy, but your tool of choice may differ depending on your delivery method, development capabilities, and state of the software to train on. As part of a blended solution, software sims work excellently side by side with on-demand video and a searchable FAQ.


Process Sims

Process simulations walk learners through processes step by step – reviewing specific steps in a task, like how to assemble or disassemble something like machinery or a food menu item. These can be physical processes, but they could be completing a document-based task, or perhaps the start to finish process of ordering supplies from a vendor. While this category can sometimes overlap with software sims or even roleplay sims, they may require additional steps or go beyond the use of a single application. Like software simulations, Process simulation also typically work well with the “show-me-try-me” method.


Process simulations should allow the learner to solidify not just the steps in the process and how to complete it, but also immerse them in the closest approximation of the environment in which they would be completing that task. When designing for the Sandwich Builder, Taco Builder, and Burger Builder projects, I was determined to take a different route, remembering the drag and drop builders I had encountered (and event built myself) in the past: stacking cartoon icons of ingredients in whichever order, with little regard to how the process is physically executed. The icons were hard to decipher and often didn’t even resemble the ingredient, so the visual-cognitive connection was totally lost. We decided to use photography of the restaurants in the background where we could, beautiful color photography of all the menu items, ingredients, and even packaging. The result was not just more effective as a learning experience – learners could more easily identify and distinguish ingredients and see how they were really assembled in the restaurant. The reason for digressing into this tangent is because Process simulations often fall hard and flat when they are not immersive, realistic, and visually relevant to the environment in which the process occurs.


Successful Process simulations take into consideration 1.) the circumstance of the audience (who, what, when, where, how), 2.) the individual steps of the process and how that translates into a simulated action, and also 3.) the environment, objects or tools used in the Process and how to sensorily represent them (visuals, sound effects, other stimuli depending on your modality, like haptics for virtual reality simulations).


Model Sims

Model simulations tend to be more complex, and represent broader, higher-level concepts while giving the opportunity to also examine detail. They usually examine either physical or non-physical models. These simulations are usually very effective for showing mechanics, but also for behavior or mindset change, and particularly effective when demonstrating how statistics and numbers affect people and businesses.


A physical model may demonstrate complex biological systems like the nervous system of an animal, or the components of a piece of machinery. With some creativity and master Storyline 360 skills, some instructional design gurus have even re-created complex equipment like digital volt-ohm meters, combustion engines, or an EKG heart monitor, simulated in a 2D environment using hotspots, drag and drop, and a complex array of variables and triggers. With a bigger budget, virtual or augmented reality might be a great option for model simulations when examining physical structures.


Non-physical model simulations may be used in instances where the objective is to demonstrate how actions or events affect a larger outcome; they may show functions of the economy, how one’s actions affect the mental health of others, or alternatively, how socioeconomic circumstances may affect lives regardless of choice. This was done very effectively by advertising agency McKinney, who created SPENT for the Urban Ministries of Durham in order to raise awareness around poverty and homelessness.


Roleplay Sims

Role play simulations are very effective and can be classroom facilitated in person or virtually, or through (typically) multiple choice response simulations (although more frequently we are seeing simulations where artificial intelligence is developed and trained via machine learning to interpret the learner’s responses and respond accordingly). In person role plays can be quite uncomfortable for many, which ironically is what also makes them very effective. However, that can backfire and cause some to become overwhelmed with the activity. Digital simulations for role play create safe environments that are easily scalable, provide opportunity for learning from failure, and are powerful tools for creating behavioral change.

Technically, role play sims can overlap with either Process or Model or even Software (as we see in the POS Practice Simulation Case Study) sims. A Roleplay Process simulation might review a specific set of standard and preferred phrases used in a sales or retail environment throughout a type of customer interaction. A Roleplay Model sim might be a complex environment where the learner practices multiple interactions and interaction types to gradually build a habit and create lasting behavioral change (as we see in the work done by Talespin, for virtual reality leadership training using conversational roleplay sims).


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