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Using Simulations in Professional Preparation Programs

Curriculum Planning and Development

Using Simulations in Professional Preparation Programs

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer plays a gonorrhea patient at a medical school? Simulations have been accepted practice in the training of nurses and physicians for many decades, and the use is common practice throughout the health sciences (Tyerman et al., 2016). If simulations have practical application and a proven track record in the preparation of practitioners in the health professions, why would they not have application in all professional preparation programs? For example, in an MBA program would it be beneficial to use simulations to provide practice in conducting a hiring interview? Could simulations be used in a program preparing advertising majors to make pitches to prospective clients using simulations? Regardless of the field, don’t we want our graduates to be able to apply the concepts taught in our courses to authentic and practical work-related situations? Simulations are one way of accomplishing this.

In the past, medical schools hired actors to portray patients with whom medical or nursing students could practice bedside manners. Some institutions that had medical schools and theater programs, such as New York University, used theater students to portray patients. Other programs, such as social work, used role play as a method of practicing interview skills. Today there are commercial simulation products and even artificial intelligence (AI) applications available for preparation programs to use. Could simulations reinforce your curriculum, add to the pedagogical practices your faculty use, and enhance your program?

If you believe that the use of simulations as a pedagogical technique might be something you want to implement in your program, consider the following:

  • If you are going to use  commercially prepared simulations, you must consider the cost to either the institution or the candidates. If a product offers simulations applicable for use across the entire program, that will make it more palatable to charge students for access to the simulations as the cost per person is most likely less than that of a single textbook.
  • Provide professional development for faculty in the appropriate use of simulations in their courses.
  • If using commercially available simulation systems, make sure that they adequately conform to your curriculum.
  • Involve all faculty in the decision regarding which simulations will be used in each course. You do not want to duplicate the use of the same simulation.
  • Let faculty members determine how to best integrate the simulations in their courses. Regardless of whether the institution or students pay for them, make sure they are used in each course.
  • Let faculty determine whether the simulation will be a graded activity or one that simply provides practical experience in support of the application of professional skills.

I offer the following as an example of how a school leadership program adopted simulations as an enhancement to the curriculum across a 36-credit program.

An adjunct faculty member used a commercial source of simulations in her work with a local school district. She brought this resource to the program’s attention. We saw that the use of simulations provided the opportunity for our degree candidates to experience “real-life” situations in a virtual setting. We recognized simulations as a supplement and an enhancement to the case-based learning practices embedded throughout our program.

The faculty and program leadership contacted the provider of the simulations to explore how we could use them in our program. We found that the simulations aligned with the Professional Standards for Education Leaders 2015 (PSEL) upon which our program is developed. We determined that there were an ample number of simulations available to allow us to embed them in each of the program’s 12 courses. Since the program, save for the two internship courses, is delivered in an asynchronous format where we hold only two live but virtual sessions via Zoom each semester, we needed the candidates to be able to complete the simulations either independently or during the faculty directed sessions. The simulations selected allowed for this.

In fall 2019, after the faculty received professional development in the effective use of simulations, faculty met to review the available simulations and to align them with the course content. We wanted to ensure that each simulation would be used only in a specifically designated courses. Faculty were allowed to determine how best to use the simulation in their courses. The program, however, determined that they would be used in every course. We reserved several of the simulations for use in the internship courses. This proved to a fortuitous decision as, when the pandemic struck and leadership interns were unable to enter the schools, New York State allowed for alternative means of completing the internship. Simulations became a means for interns to complete some of the mandated internship hours.

After several semesters of use, we surveyed candidates regarding their experience with the simulations. The survey asked them to rank four items as either strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement. We surveyed 50 candidates and received 29 responses.

The survey items and the results are as follows:

  1. Simulation(s) improved my understanding of the challenges faced by school/district leaders: 27 strongly agreed or agreed; one was neutral, and one disagreed.
  2. Simulation(s) increased my knowledge of school leadership: 27 strongly agreed or agreed; one was neutral, and one disagreed.
  3. Participating in the simulation(s) strengthened the course content: 27 strongly agreed or agreed; one was neutral, and one disagreed
  4. What I learned from participation in the simulation(s) is transferable to my future work as a school/district leader: 26 strongly agreed or agreed; two were neutral, and one disagreed.

Some candidates chose to provide personal reflections about their experience with the simulations. A sample of the feedback follows:

  • “Each simulation made my learning practical.”
  • “Engaging in group simulations also strengthened my connections and communication with peers in the program.”
  • “I think that it would be helpful to have more simulation assignments that can be completed individually. Sometimes when working in a group, it is easy to just go along with what the group says instead of developing your own opinion.”
  • “Great way to explore situations with a professor but also with classmates to see different perspectives.”
  • “By participating in the simulations, I was able to think critically about the decision I made. These simulations helped me to gain experience dealing with actual situations that I may have to deal with as a school leader.”

How did the faculty members feel about the efficacy of the use of simulations?

  • The simulations, regardless the format of how they are used, strengthen the critical thinking skills of our candidates.
  • When the simulations are used in live, but virtual situations, the interaction of the candidates with each other produces valuable discussion about the optional choices candidates had to make at each of the turning points in the situations presented. This fosters greater understanding of the variables presented and of the outcomes of the decisions made.
  • When used as an independent activity, with a written analysis by the candidate, the candidates have demonstrated the ability to assess their own understanding of the complexities of school leadership.
  • The simulations strengthen the curriculum.

The survey results and the faculty feedback indicate the value of the simulations as a pedagogical strategy that enhances our courses and prepares our candidates to meet the challenges that school leaders face today. It is reasonable to expect that using simulations would have the same positive impact on students preparing for any profession. Simulation-based education gives students the opportunity to practice learned skills and apply theory in real-life situations.


National Policy Board for Educational Administration. (2015). Professional standards for educational leaders. https://www.npbea.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Professional-Standards-for-Educational-Leaders_2015.pdf

Tyerman, J., Luctkar-Flude, M., Graham, L, Coffey, S., & Olsen-Lynch, E. (2016). Pre-simulation preparation and briefing practices for healthcare professionals and students: A systematic review protocol. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, 14(8), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.11124/JBISRIR-2016-003055

Alan Sebel, EdD, is an associate professor of school leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education at Touro College in New York City. Before joining Touro he was a deputy assistant superintendent in the New York City Public Schools.


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