Using Simulations as an Instructional Strategy in Public Safety Education

Chapter image for Using Simulations as an Instructional Strategy in Public Safety Education.
Authored by

Junsong Zhang, Dave Smulders, Robert Walker, Ron Bowles, Stephen O’Hearn

Public institutions and corporations have been designing and using simulations in face-to-face, online, and virtual environments for a variety of purposes. Yet simulation can be a discombobulated concept for many, including ourselves in instructional design and educational technology. This article aims to give a brief introduction about how simulation is used in education, how simulation is defined, and how simulation can be incorporated as a part of instructional strategies.

Use of Simulations in Education

Imagine you are learning a skill that may have a direct impact on someone’s health, you would probably want to ensure that you know not only the theory but also how to apply the skill in real life. Practice is often the key to the learning process in this case, but traditional educational methods of lecture, discussion, and demonstration do not provide an optimal environment for practical experience. It is important to find a way to keep learners focused, engaged, and involved – maximizing the retention and transfer of what has been learned.

Simulations have been proven effective in bridging the gap between what individuals learn in a classroom and what occurs in practice, which is why the use of simulation in education is important, as our society relies on people like nurses, paramedics, police, firefighters, and pilots. In addition to these high-stake jobs, simulation is also widely used in many other disciplines such as engineering, business, and history.

Before we dive into the concepts and theories on simulation and simulation design, we will contextualize and illustrate the idea of practice and simulation via a brief description on how simulation is used at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC).

The JIBC is a public post-secondary institute in Canada with a focus on public safety education. JIBC uses a variety of practice education methods: simulations and their derivatives. These range from case study discussions and role plays, skill stations and drills, through to live simulations with multiple actors and full-scale disaster exercises. These activities can be arranged into a “Practice Learning Ladder,” which organizes simulation activities from simple to complex.

Many JIBC programs employ – implicitly or explicitly – a “simple to complex” progression, particularly for skill or procedural learning. For instance, in the paramedic setting, learners master simple skills such as starting an Intravenous therapy (IV) or using hard collars, and then integrate these with other procedures such as drawing and administering medications or performing spinal rolls. These are then applied in drills or short simulations that integrate the new procedure with the learners’ overall approach within a particular case or story (e.g., an overdose or a pedestrian-struck). After learners have mastered a variety of situations, they may move into “high fidelity simulations” which employ actors or mannequins as patients that focus on differential diagnosis and adapting to new situations. At the most complex level, learners may engage in full scale “live” simulation exercises, where multiple teams of paramedics work alongside fire and police recruits responding to a mass casualty incident such as a building collapse or an active-shooter scenario.


Practice Learning Ladder

The following video excerpt explains the concept of the “Practice Learning Ladder” as an organizational framework for simulation design. How does this practice learning ladder work in different contexts and subject areas?

Reflective Questions

Now that you have a general idea of how simulation is used, what stands out for you?

How do any of the simulation activities relate to your teaching or your course design?

How does the idea of “simple to complex” progress align with your teaching methods and philosophy?

Definition of Simulation

A review of the literature offers varied definitions for simulation. Here are some definitions we feel worth mentioning as they capture some of the key aspects of simulation:

The Society for the Advancement of Games and Simulations in Education and Training (SAGSET) has defined a simulation as “a working representation of reality; it may be an abstracted, simplified, or accelerated model of the process. It allows students to explore systems where reality is too expensive, complex, dangerous, fast, or slow” (as cited in Jones, 1987, p. 10).

Thomas (2003) stated that simulations are used to gain new insights into a phenomenon or to allow individuals to explore and develop understanding of new or challenging situations and systems and to experience a situation that may not be readily available.

Billings and Halstead (2009) described simulation as a near representation of an actual event, which represents realities and actively involves learners in problem solving by means of computers, role-playing, case studies, and games.

As described in these definitions, there are a few key elements in simulation:

  • Representation of an event or reality.
  • Provides an experience for learners.
  • Replicates situations that are not readily available.
  • Can be presented via a wide range of means.

Reflective Questions

How do the key elements of simulation mentioned above relate to your understanding of simulation?

If you were to define simulation, how would you reconstruct the definition based on your experience and understanding?

Simulations as an Instructional Strategy

To begin with, adopting simulations in teaching requires a change of mindset for educators – how we conceptualize the process of learning, where learning begins and ends, and how students integrate knowledge and skills. It also presents opportunities to apply a perhaps familiar yet obscure pedagogical method: experiential learning. Lastly, looking at the learning outcomes, simulations add an additional emphasis on learning transfer and skill development.

Extending Learning Beyond the Classroom

For educators, the classroom is often meant to serve as a kind of sanctuary, a safe place of well-ordered and deliberate actions, unencumbered by the distractions of the outside world. Instructors provide and challenge learners with relevant information, and learners in turn process that information in multiple ways to improve and deepen their understanding. At the end of that designated period, like a course or semester, learners come away more informed and more prepared to apply their new knowledge in environments no longer protected by the fastness of the classroom.

However, for many learners, their learning is woefully incomplete without that application and experience outside the classroom. On the contrary, the chaos and uncertainty of the outside world is where they will apply their knowledge and refine their skills. For example, first responders arriving at the scene of an incident certainly have to know how to assess an individual in distress, to check for vital signs and recognize the symptoms that are presented to them, but they also need to be able to conduct that assessment while family members are standing nearby in a state of intense anxiety or in a back alley while a crowd begins to gather or in the wake of a devastating event like a car accident, earthquake, destructive storm, fire, etc. Potentially all around them is anything but a feeling of sanctuary.

As educators, without addressing the reality of that potentially distracting environment, a student’s learning is at best partially accomplished. Application of knowledge means application in authentic environments in order to support and challenge those learners to be able to do their jobs properly when they find themselves back in the field.

Integrating Experiential Learning

Simulations are first and foremost environments designed to foster activity, interpretation, and understanding. During a simulation, individuals experience and process all types of information: facts, emotions, strategies, outcomes, relationships, feelings, and much more.

The use of simulation has been found to be an effective approach for creating experiential learning environments in adult education (Merriam et al., 2007). An effective simulation can be better than real-world experience as a learning tool because it accelerates time, compresses space, and, unlike reality, is specifically designed to maximize individuals’ learning (Klapper, 2011). Additionally, simulations are usually observable by instructors and peers for review and reflection. In an educational context, the uses of a facilitated debriefing and review after a simulation experience provides individuals an opportunity to reflect and receive feedback on their performance (Aebersold & Tschannen, 2013)

At the heart of all simulations is the objective of learning to do by doing. For simulation learning environments to be effective, they must closely reflect real-world complexities and demands in order that accurate and true experience is provided to the individuals involved. Experiential and reflective learning models such as Kolb’s (1984) can be effectively applied within the simulation context. As individuals engage in a simulation, the experiences gained in simulation are stored as memories that can then be drawn upon and applied to a new situation. Learners then reflect on the experience and form theoretical concepts. These concepts are then applied, tested, and evaluated as being successful or unsuccessful and are engraved into long-term memory.

Research clearly indicates that simulations provide effective experiential learning environments resulting from the fact that individuals are active and not passive in the process (Hahn, 2010). Furthermore, students prefer simulation activities as they are directly involved in their own development and understanding of skills and knowledge.


David Kolb’s Experiential Learning

As you view the following video excerpt on Kolb’s learning model and simulation design, consider how experiential learning is supported in different ways during a simulation activity.

Enhancing Skill Development and Learning Transfer

In addition, research shows that simulations can provide meaningful learning results in many areas of practice and profession, since simulation can replicate a wide range of situations and can supply foundational support for design of response, procedural analysis, and performance assessment (Steward & Wan, 2007). In Cook et al.’s (2011) large systematic review of health care related simulations containing 609 studies with 35,000 trainees, the results were unequivocal: learning on simulators demonstrated large gains in performance.

The aviation industry has relied upon simulation perhaps more than any other safety-critical industry (Salas, Bowers, & Rhodenizer, 1998). The investment in simulation reflects an industry-wide confidence that it can save time, money, and lives while providing effective training and developing skills and knowledge that are transferable (Burki-Cohen, Soja, & Longridge, 1998).

Transfer is known as the application of knowledge, skills, and attitudes acquired during training to the environment in which they are normally used. Key to successful transfer of new experience is the process of reflection or review on that experience. In an educational and training context, the uses of a facilitated debriefing and review after a simulation experience provides individuals an opportunity to reflect and receive feedback on their performance (Aebersold & Tschannen, 2013).

In short, research studies have found that the experiences gained in simulation are conducive to the development of real-life skills. When the perceived risk is high, simulation plays an even more important role in skill acquisition.


Skill Acquisition and Learning Transfer

As you watch this video excerpt, ask yourself what kinds of information learners can process during a simulation experience.

Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

It has become much more widely recognized that educational practices and research need to work together to accurately represent the world we live in as well as supporting that natural diversity, amongst students, faculty, and practitioners in the field (Eaton, 2022).

Simulations offer a two-fold opportunity to resist reinforcing stereotypes. The first opportunity is in the form of representation. Advances in design thinking from areas such as Universal Design for Learning remind us that the faces and characters we depict in simulations may be representative for some groups but not for others or may traditionally place the same characters in certain roles. Well-designed simulations take equity, diversity, and inclusion into account to create more representative images of characters or a variety of possible representations within a given situation (Foranda et al, 2020). For example, simulations around confrontations may be played out twice but with everyone reversing roles in order to see if other issues arise.

The other opportunity relates to the advantage of training learners for situations that challenge their own biases and perspectives. Recent research in this area (Freedman et al., 2020) shows the benefits of using simulations to practice advocacy work on behalf of underrepresented groups. For instance, simulations can aim to address racism and sexism that are common in our society by way of developing empathy and understanding within the social context instead of solely focusing on the procedural or technical side of the content.

Reflective Questions

Think about one of your courses, what did you learn in the classroom and out of the classroom?

What types of activities do you design for learners to apply their knowledge?

How do you maximize learning transfer in your courses or instructional design projects?

How do you incorporate Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in your simulation design?

What Next?

Simulation as an instructional strategy supports a few critical concepts in teaching and learning: authentic learning environments, learning by doing, knowledge transfer and application, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Understanding these concepts may be the first step toward better learning experiences and outcomes, yet it is not guaranteed unless we pay close attention to how simulations are designed and implemented. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned a “simple to complex” progression to scaffold learners because we know that novice learners can easily find themselves lost in a full-scale simulation.

Now that we introduced the use of simulation, we would encourage you to continue exploring and learning more to determine if simulation, within your context, can add value as a teaching and learning tool.

This work is under a CC BY-NC-SA  license.


Aebersold, M., & Tschannen, D. (2013). Simulation in nursing practice: The impact on patient care. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 18(2). doi:10.3912/OJIN.Vol18No02Man06

Billings, D. M., & Halstead, J. A. (2009). Teaching in nursing. A guide for faculty (3rded.). Elsevier Saunders.

Burki-Cohen, J. S., Soja, N. N., & Longridge, T. (1998). Simulator fidelity requirements: the case of platform motion. 9th ITEC International Training & Education Conference, Lausanne, Switzerland

Cook, D. A., Hatala, R., Brydges, R., Zendejus, B., Szostek, J. H., Wang, A. T., . . . Hamstra, S. J. (2011). Technology-enhanced simulation for health professions education: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Jama, 306(9), 978–988. doi:10.1001/jama. 2011.1234

Eaton, S.E. (2022). New priorities for academic integrity: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Decolonization and Indigenization. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 18, 10 (2022).

Foronda, C., Prather, S. L., Baptiste, D., Townsend-Chambers, C., Mays, L., & Graham, C. (2020). Underrepresentation of racial diversity in simulation: An international study. Nursing education perspectives41(3), 152-156. E12–E13.

Freedman, J. E., Woodfield, C. L., & Dotger, B. H. (2020). Using Simulated Meetings to Practice Advocating for Disability-Related Accommodations (Practice Brief). Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 33(4), 387–394.

Hahn, S. (2010). Transfer of training from simulations in civilian and military workforces: Perspectives from the current body of literature. Unpublished manuscript.

Jones, N. A., H. Ross, T. Lynam, P. Perez, and A. Leitch. (2011). Mental models: an interdisciplinary synthesis of theory and methods. Ecology and Society 16(1): 46.

Klapper, B. (2011). When simulation is better than reality. Chief Learning Officer

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L., M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Salas, E., Bowers, C. A., & Rhodenizer, L. (1998). It is not how much you have but how you use it: Toward a rational use of simulation to support aviation training. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 8(3), 197–208. doi:10.1207/s15327108ijap0803_2

Steward, D., & Wan, T. T. (2007). The role of simulation and modeling in disaster management. Journal of medical systems31(2), 125-130.

Thomas, R. (2003). What Are Simulations?–The JeLSIM Perspective. JeLSIM.Thomas, R. (2003). What Are Simulations?–The JeLSIM Perspective. [White Paper]  JeLSIM., R. (2003). What Are Simulations?–The JeLSIM Perspective. JeLSIM.

We want your voice. Add Issues.

We want your voice. Add Role Perspectives.

We want your voice. Add Lenses.

We want your voice. Add Settings.


Textbooks, scholarly literature, and even current events reflected in venues ranging from social media to journalism, all present a continuous roll of issues that have topical relevance in a course setting. To use this lens dentify one or more issues that are relevant to the topic in this chapter. Issues can range very widely, from ongoing debates about privacy to public health to emerging stories about climate events.

Role Perspectives

Different roles can have an impact on interests and perspectives. For example, being a student is in itself a role – including domestic, international, full time or part time, newly matriculated or mid-career professional, along with such other possible roles as parent, administrator, educator or other areas within life outside of the educational milieu.


You may choose or be assigned to research the chapter topic from a particular lens, such as decolonization, historical justice, anti-racism, and other such anti-oppressive perspectives that centre on alternative narratives to those that present in dominant cultures. By working with a specific lens, you can research issues from a social justice perspective. In addition, the use of lenses can also encourage a focus on transdisciplinary approaches.


Many learning experiences in higher education include various forms of experiential learning intended to integrate workplace or community-based learning with formal education. Focusing on a specific setting can help focus the learning on specific settings. You may come to your studies from, or with ambitions toward, a particular industry or workplace, community setting, within education or a profession, corporate or public sector, or any of many possible disciplines. For instance, learning design in higher education is often quite different from the corporate world or within government. These settings may have an influence on the perspectives you bring and/or would like to bring to your research and course work.

This field is optional and can be used for your name or pseudonym.