Simulations in learning: Bridging theory and practice

Simulations as a learning tool have been around for a while. You’re probably familiar with the flight simulators used by pilots in training before they’re allowed to fly. Educators in diverse areas use similar simulations to substitute for hands-on experience when actual exposure is unpredictable, expensive, or high risk.

Recent research investigates if that same philosophy could be applied more broadly in a university setting. Universities often face problems surrounding student motivation, perceived relevance of the material, and translating classroom theory to real world skills.

Could simulations be just as effective in training future doctors as it has been for firefighters and pilots?

Simulators: for doctors as well as pilotsImage source:

A 2014 study from the University of Copenhagen explored that question, broadening the global understanding of the impact of simulations on learning outcomes in higher ed.

Their findings suggested that simulations could be one solution to decreasing the gap between theory and practice in university students.

Before we look at the research methods and results of this specific study, let’s look into why exactly it’s relevant to higher ed, and the common problems university students face as a result of the gap between learning in a classroom and working in a field as a professional.

The gap dilemma

One common problem among university students is difficulty envisioning the differences between a given subject in the format of an academic class and that same subject in the applied context of jobs and the real world.

On the flip side, students could be completely uninterested in the academic components of a particular subject, and might then veer away from a career path despite potential to greatly enjoy its real world application.

Science is a particularly good example: science in the classroom is drastically different than science in the field.

Students often choose not to pursue careers in science simply because they don’t like science class, even though the aspects of science class that they tend to dislike have little in common with real world scientific careers and research.

In a similar vein, it is difficult for students to identify subject matter with real-world relevance in a sea of theoretical and seemingly irrelevant classwork. If students don’t see how the material can be applied to their careers in the future, it may affect their motivation to learn and their interest in the subject overall.

Another obstacle takes the form of a chicken and egg problem: a particular skill set is required for a job, but you can’t get those skills without experience on the job.

Again, science is an especially frustrating example. In order to work in a research lab, students need to have developed lab skills. They cannot develop those skills without access to a lab, but they can’t have access to the lab until they develop the skills…it’s a problem.

Similarly, before talking to a patient, doctors need to first develop great patient-doctor communication skills and a sophisticated bedside manner. But on the other hand, they can’t develop those skills unless they are allowed to speak with a patient in the first place.

The gap between theory and application is getting bigger, especially in science, where rapid technological advances mean that the field is constantly evolving. Even when there is a way to practice, it often involves expensive equipment, large chunks of time, and sometimes even safety hazards. Take medical students, for example. The students can’t learn the newer lab techniques due to time, equipment cost, and potential safety risks, and so educators struggle to provide anything beyond theory in class.

Additionally, the rigorous pre-medical or medical school curriculum is a barrier for fitting practical work into the course, as any additional time spent on hands-on training means time taken away from classroom theory.

These are all big problems with no obvious or easy solution. The study investigates whether online simulations could help students bridge the gap between academic material and practical application.

The research

Research took place at the University of Copenhagen in the fall of 2014. A sample of 300 first-year undergraduate students in a Molecular Genetics course, most with a major of medicine or biomedicine, participated in a traditional one hour lecture and followed by a two hour medical genetics Labster simulation. The study focused on the effect of simulations on challenges for medical students, including lack of lab access to build up practical skills for the field and difficulty visualizing the relevance of the material.

Results and conclusions

Perceived Relevance

As discussed above, it can be challenging for students to link theoretical material in the classroom to applied knowledge in practical settings, which creates a gap between “students’ perceptions of what they are being taught and the skills they are expected to have in their future careers as practitioners”. The results of the study suggest that simulations helped students to understand the real world relevance of what they were learning in class.

The study found that 82% of students thought medical genetics was more interesting after playing the Labster’s molecular genetics online lab, and 93% agreed that learning in the applied, practical context of the simulation was motivating. When measured on an index scale of 1-5, students regardless of original knowledge level reported higher self-efficacy scores and increased motivation to learn the material.

The results indicate that simulation-based learning can enable students to understand how the theoretical foundation from class is applied in a real world setting, which increases student interest and motivation to learn the material in the first place. Learning in the applied context of a simulation could combat the problem of students veering away from a scientific the career path just because they don’t like the classroom content, or losing interest because they don’t see how the academic theory learned in class is relevant to the field.

In short, the simulations allowed students to understand how their classroom knowledge could actually help them in real life, which was motivating and made learning more interesting.

Practical skill building

The simulation also lessened the gap between developing communication skills and actually speaking to a patient. The research found that working on a case study simulation that resembles the activities of a real doctor increased students’ confidence in their real world ability, with 78% of students saying they would feel more confident counseling a patient after completing the simulation, as compared to reading the content in a textbook.

Additionally, the simulation introduced students to laboratory techniques and equipment to which they would otherwise not have access due to cost and time, by allowing them to complete labs online in a fraction of the time it would take in real life. Thus, students were exposed to pertinent lab procedures and skills that they would not have exposure to otherwise.

Simulations like Labster’s virtual labs that provide this type of in-context learning could have “long term, positive educational and career consequences resulting from the students’ application of their knowledge in clinically relevant settings and an increase in their perceived ability” to perform professionally.

In other words, the simulations could impact students’ future careers, practical skills, foundational knowledge, and confidence by allowing them to have practical exposure to the field while remaining in a classroom setting.

What it means for the future

It’s hard to connect what you learn in class to what you have to do as a professional. It’s also difficult to gain the skills needed for many careers like medicine when obstacles such as cost and equipment and safety get in the way. This study found that students were more motivated, more interested in the material, and more confident in their ability to perform in the real world after participating in a Labster simulation that applied classroom theory to the field.

Simulations in general could be a good way to decrease the gap between what students learn in school and what they’re expected to do in a given profession on both of those fronts, but there’s always room for more research on the effects of simulations in education. In the meantime, check out Labster’s simulation catalog.

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