Simulation games promote development of most in-demand career skills

Researchers at the URV and UOC have evaluated the impact of these games on the learning processes of students enrolled on bachelor’s and master's degree programmes, observing that, in addition to increasing student’s levels of motivation, these simulators also deliver improvements in terms of the learning process and skills acquired

We are social animals; from the moment we are born, we take on new behaviours by imitating the actions of the people around us. Testing and trialling to achieve new goals. This also applies to the field of education, with a new approach developed over recent decades that casts the student in a more active and prominent role with regard to their learning experience. And in this new problem-solving, project-based educational paradigm, digital and communications technologies have earned their spot as essential new tools for teaching and learning. But are they really effective? Do they provide real, tangible benefits for learners?

Researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) set out to answer just that question with the use of what are known as ‘serious games’ applied within the field of economics. Specifically, their focus has been to evaluate the impact of business simulation games on the learning processes of students enrolled on bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes, observing that, in addition to increasing student’s levels of motivation, these simulators also deliver improvements in terms of the learning process and skills acquired.

“We have verified that this type of online learning methodology trains students in the skills demanded by the labour market, such as conflict management and teamwork”, said Ana Beatriz Hernández, director of the URV’s Business Management Department and co-author of this research work, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The study involved the participation of 115 students (62.61% male and 37.39% female), with an average age of 36, who played simulation games as part of their bachelor’s or master’s degree management course curriculum. They were divided into teams of four or five and competed against other teams to simulate a real company scenario. They completed a total of eight rounds with each round representing an economic period. At the end of the process, the researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire in order to evaluate their learning process and the skills acquired.

“Our findings showed that these types of tools proved very useful in the students’ learning process. They needed to work in groups, communicate with each other via different forms of media and make decisions collectively”, explained UOC Faculty of Economics and Business professor, co-author of the study, Enric Serradell, who went on to add that, “the fact that the teams had to compete against each other provides an additional boost in motivating the students”.

The researchers analysed the skills strengthened through the use of simulators, both the generic, cross-disciplinary skills that can be applied to any type of education, such as decision-making, teamwork and communication, as well as those that are specific to the area being studied, including, in this case, the interpretation of financial reports.

The results of the study reveal that generic skills exert a positive influence on learning outcomes. The students were better equipped to process and analyse information and possessed improved skills with regard to teamwork, innovation and creativity, as well as communication and technology use. These relate to specific cross-disciplinary skills that are highly valued by the labour market, serving to prepare individuals to successfully adapt to any workplace.

“An ability to make decisions and be influential when it comes to collective decision-making represent key skills that are promoted within these learning contexts,” said study co-author and Vice President for Competitiveness and Employability at the UOC, Àngels Fitó.

The researchers further concluded that these types of tools also help to overcome time and space constraints in relation to learning. As Hernández pointed out, “they are more flexible and promote ubiquitous learning and the generation of learning communities”.

Application in business management

The serious game evaluated by the researchers was a simulator which replicated an international telecommunications company manufacturing, producing and selling mobile phones in Asia, Europe and the United States. The students played in teams and assumed a variety of interchangeable roles that spanned general management to marketing.

“The game starts off with an initial scenario where students are given a specific assignment and are advised of certain political, social and economic conditions and variables that they need to manage as a team. They compete with other teams and have to make a variety of customary, everyday decisions as a collective unit. And for this they have to work together and negotiate among themselves in order to manage the company as effectively as possible,” explained Serradell.

These simulators allow for the testing of authentic, real-time market conditions and call for active student participation, which is not, as in other courses, limited to memorizing knowledge, but is applied within the controlled environment facilitated by the simulator.

“These games go some way to dispelling the view of universities in which education takes a very theoretical rather than practical approach. This type of tool demonstrates that the opposite is true; that we provide training in the development of skills and that those skills correlate to those demanded by employers”, stressed Hernández, who believes this type of teaching methodology also delivers a more global form of training for economics and business students.

“The latest demands being made by the labour market need to be met with active responses from university education and these types of methodologies represent an example of exactly that”, she concluded.

Reference:  Ana Beatriz Hernández-Lara; Enric Serradell-López; Àngels Fitó-Bertran. Students’ perception of the impact of competences on learning: An analysis with business simulations., “Computers in Human Behavior” Volume 101, December 2019, Pages 311-319. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2019.07.02.

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