Crafting Simulations for Dynamic Learning

by Kirsty Giles

We’ve known for a long time that adults learn from experience. We’ve also been creating simulations to drive learning for many years. From a simple system simulation that helps learners use business applications to complex flight simulations that train our pilots.

Cost has often stood in the way of developing effective simulations. However, rapid changes in technology means we will see a reduction in the cost of developing good quality simulations and therefore an increase in their use.  However, the challenge we face with simulations isn’t just about cost of development or underlying technology capability. We need to make sure we develop simulated learning situations that reflect what we know about how adults learn.

We can also be more adventurous about creating simulations. They don’t always require a big technology outlay. A facilitated conversation between team members using a well-designed customer service scenario can be a very effective simulated learning experience. The key is to choose the scenario and facilitate the discussion in a way that reflects how we know adults learn.


Let’s explore this further. Kolb’s[1] experiential learning model is a good place to start.

How to create simulations that work? Diagram adopted from Kolb's Learning Cycle 1984, showing 4 segments 1. Have a realistic experience, 2. Reflect on the experience, 3. Learn from the experience, 4. Experiment with what you have learned

Adapted from Kolb’s Learning Cycle, 1984

Have a realistic experience

Kolb calls this first step the Concrete Experience. We want our learners to have a realistic experience that reflects the complexity of their working environment.

The tendency is to streamline or sanitise examples or simulations in a way that subject matter experts believe will make it “easier” for learners to learn. We’ve also been limiting complexity because our authoring platforms couldn’t deliver what we needed.

However, it’s the challenge that the learners face as they work through the simulation that drives the learning. In addition, it’s the realistic nature of the simulation that motivates adults to learn. Unrealistic or simplistic scenarios or simulations turn adults off the learning because they recognise they are not realistic.

What we are looking for is a scenario or simulation that has a number of possible outcomes, that could each lead to a different but valid result. If there is only one valid outcome, then a good scenario will allow the learner to explore different ways to get to that single outcome.

Remember that a concrete experience will allow the learner to explore rather than forcing them to focus on getting the right answer. It’s not a quiz, it’s an exploration.

Reflect on the experience

Kolb calls this second step the Reflective Observation. We want our learners to reflect on the choices they make during the concrete experience and consider how they could have changed the outcome by making a different choice.

The tendency is to provide simple correct / incorrect feedback in scenarios and simulations. This changes the learning focus away from an experiential approach and makes every learning experience feel like a compliance requirement.

Imagine a conversation between a group of learners that is facilitated by an effective coach. Imagine the learners exploring the different choices they made in a realistic scenario, looking at what worked and what didn’t work because of the choices they made. This is reflecting on an experience. This works well when we are learning collaboratively, and the Facilitator has great facilitation skills.

The challenge is to support this style of reflection when our learners are working through an online simulation or scenario by themselves. This is where we need to craft effective debriefing questions. Debriefing questions are not a quiz and should not be multiple choice or true false questions. Good debriefing questions prompt the learner to reflect and often allow space for the learner to write free form responses.

It’s tempting to worry about whether the learner will do the reflection if we don’t make it a compulsory quiz. Adults want to learn and are motivated to be better at their job. If we create the correct experiential environment, adults will engage and learn what they need to learn. The pathway to this learning will be different for each learner and we can trust that each one will engage at the level they need to in order to achieve the learning outcome.

Learn from the experience

Kolb calls this third step the Abstract Conceptualisation. We want our learners to change their current understanding or create new understanding based on the reflections from their experience.

The tendency is to tell learners what they need to know and then include a scenario or quiz to test that learners have remembered what we told them. In an experiential learning model, we create an experience and support reflection so that learners can create their own understanding of what they need to know. This is challenging for many of us who work in learning and development because we feel we have lost control of the learning content.

However, this approach recognises that adults bring prior knowledge and experience to any situation and that they are motivated to learn what they need to do their job effectively. Our role when facilitating learning is to create situations that challenge learners’ existing understanding and help them build a new understanding.

We support learners by presenting conceptual ideas at this stage in their learning. The content we would normally present at the beginning of the learning experience is presented as a way of wrapping up the experience and reflection.

The challenge here is to ensure the simulation or scenario we’ve created supports the concepts we want the learner to understand so that when we present these concepts, they resonate with the learner and will be trusted and adopted.

Experiment with what you have learned

Kolb calls this third step the Active Experimentation. We want our learners to apply what they have learned in their day-to-day work or in another simulation or scenario that we have created.

This will consolidate and reinforce their learning. It also gives us an opportunity to introduce additional concepts that we want learners to integrate into their understanding.

This is why we often include more than one simulation or scenario in our learning program. It allows for consolidation but also allows us to build on the learning until we achieve the desired learning outcome.

It also means that we need to create and support a reflective practice environment for our learners when they are back on the job. But that’s a topic for another article.



Changing technology means we will start to see more sophisticated simulations being developed as part of our learning mix. These simulations will be technically sophisticated and will no doubt look very engaging. We’ve been here before with each new iteration of authoring tools.

The risk is that developing these simulations without understanding the underlying learning principles will result in poor quality simulations that don’t achieve our learning outcomes. Kolb’s experiential learning model for adults provides a wonderful framework for us to use when we decide to build good quality, effective learning simulations.

Let’s make sure that the promise offered by the latest technology delivers learning solutions that better serve our learning audiences and help to achieve our business outcomes.

This article was first published under the title MIRRORS OF REALITY: CRAFTING SIMULATIONS THAT ZING FOR DYNAMIC LEARNING, in Training and Development Magazine, June 2024, Volume 51, No. 2, published by the Australian Institute of Training & Development, AITD.

About the author:

Kirsty Giles is a Relationship Manager & Senior Project Experience Manager at Liberate Learning. For over a decade, Kirsty has worked closely with L&D stakeholders in various industries, championing tailor-made training solutions that reached large internal and external audiences. While new learning technology is at the heart of many of her projects, Kirsty deeply values strong stakeholder relations and learning that is grounded on sound instructional approaches.

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