4.4    Providing substitute experiences

The most important implication of experiential learning theory is that active learning experiences should be provided for the learner. We are not to be concerned here with the practicalities of how to provide work experience. The Further Education Unit publications Converting Working Into Learning and Planned Experience provide help in this area. The ideas in this section are about providing substitutes for direct work experience and, in particular, simulations, case studies, role plays and games.

4.4.1    Case studies

4.4.2    Games

4.4.3    Simulations

4.4.4    Role plays

4.4.5    Assessing through substitute experiences


If you were to imagine a scale which represented how real a learning situation was, and how personally involved the learner was in that situation, lectures or reading might be at one end, and direct experience of work at the other. On this scale you could place case studies, games, simulations and role plays, as in the diagram below:

4.4.1    Case studies

A case study involves a detailed examination of a real-life or simulated situation carried out in order to illustrate special and/or general characteristics. An example might be the examination of a patient's case notes. They are useful to apply theory to practical situations, and to derive general principals from examples. A potential danger with case studies is that discussion can rush headlong to solutions without adequate description and analysis of the situation, and without exploring possible consequences of alternative solutions. The following sequence of analysis can help to structure the discussion of case studies. Stages 1-4 follow the experiential learning cycle from reflection to experimentation at an abstract level, without direct personal experience.

1 Understand the situation
2 Diagnose the problem
3 Create an alternative solution
4 Predict outcomes
5 Choose from among options
6 Round out the analysis
7 Communicate the results

Further reading

Easton, G. Learning from Case Studies Prentice Hall, 1982.


4.4.2    Games

A game is a contest among players operating under a set of rules in order to win or to obtain a payoff. The key feature of a game is that it involves competition. Games invariably increase learners' interest and can turn a dull topic into an exciting experience. Games also tend to help learners to loosen up and become more fully involved. The fact that it is a game gives participants permission to be lively, even silly, and allows laughter and enjoyment where this might otherwise be considered inappropriate. For this reason a game can be an effective way to start a session or a new topic on a course - loosening up attitudes and encouraging active engagement.

Some games involve elements of simulation, as with the board game Monopoly. Others involve role play, as with Dungeons and Dragons.

It can be effective to add elements of games into otherwise conventional situations: for example having teams of students competing against each other rather than simply working in parallel . An all -purpose format for this kind of game, known as the 'Game for all Seasons', involves both simulation and role play in the three stages described below.

A Game For All Seasons

1 Learners are divided into teams and set the same task or problem to work on. Instead of this being merely an academic task, an element of simulation is introduced. For example, instead of Engineering Design students simply working on a design, the design task could be set in the context of an imaginary prestigious national design competition. The teams could represent different companies competing for the design prize.
2 An extra team is set up as judges of the outcomes of the team's work. While the teams get on with their work, the panel of judges discusses the criteria it will use to judge the outcomes of this work. This might be an 'Engineering Design Council'. Members of the teams could be allowed to consult the judges panel about criteria. When they did so this could be 'in role': as a member of an engineering company approaching the Engineering Design Council.
3 The teams present the outcomes of their work to the judges who question the teams and discuss the work in a 'fishbowl' (with all the teams sitting around the judges listening to the discussion but not participating). They then give their judgement and award a prize to the winning team (even a modest prize can motivate large numbers of learners for long periods).

Bringing elements of the real world in this way into what might otherwise be an unstructured and abstract discussion can have a dramatic affect on learning.

An example of the effective use of a game in what might at first appear an unpromising electrician training course can be found in Section 5.5.

Further reading

Ellington, H., Addinal, E. and Percival, F. Handbook of Game Design Kogan Page, London. 1982

The Game for all Seasons is adapted from a game with the same title in:

Jaques, D. Learning in Groups Croom Helm, Beckenham. 1985


4.4.3    Simulations

A simulation represents a real situation and is continuing. A circuit diagram, although it represents actual wiring, is not a simulation because it is static. A flight simulator for training pilots is a simulation, however, because it changes with time. Simulations can come very close to reality. Computer simulations can be invaluable for studying situations which in reality are too dangerous, too time consuming, or ethically unsound. For example, it might be educationally valuable to allow an economics student to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer for five years, and elements of this experience can be achieved in an hour with the use of a computer simulation of the behaviour of the British economy. Similarly, a computer simulation of the operation of the human respiratory system allows biology students to try to keep simulated 'patients' alive by manipulating their oxygen supply in a way that would be impossible in real life. An example of this application is elaborated in Section 5.3.

Simulations and games can also be used as case studies: after undertaking the simulation or game, participants stop and reflect about it in order to draw general conclusions about the simulated events involved.

Further reading

Jones, K. Simulations: A Handbook For Teachers Kogan Page, London. 1980.


4.4.4    Role plays

Simulations can be enriched by role play. Participants not only make decisions about what to do in the simulation, but play the role of particular individuals. An example of this in use is the 'simulated patient' technique developed at McMaster University for the training of doctors. Trainees are confronted with someone role playing a patient. Instead of simply discussing the patient's notes (a case study) they have to play the role of a doctor and talk to and examine the patient, making a diagnosis as in a real situation. This would be risky in real life, but provides an invaluable substitute for direct work experience.

As well as being used as an extra element of simulation of real life events, role playing can be used to help learners to empathise with the position and feelings of others. For example, to help sales staff to understand the feelings of frustrated shoppers, the trainee could take the role of a shopper in a simulation of a long check-out queue. This use of role play is quite common in the training of staff in areas where human relations are crucial, such as in the caring professions and in service jobs.

Role plays can be more tricky to run than case studies, games and simulations, because they involve learners personally and can arouse strong feelings and awkwardness. The following guidelines are offered to help to set up and run role plays.

Guidelines for running role plays

Role briefs
Briefs are valuable to enable inexperienced 'players' to get into a role. Briefs should not be over-elaborate or caricatures. Extreme or cliched personality traits allow too little scope for personal interpretation or unpredictability of outcomes. Too much detail makes the role too difficult to play and constrains outcomes. Briefs should contain some information about what it is reasonable for the person to know (and feel) about the other roles in the role play.

Contextual information
It is contextual information which turns a disembodied role play into a simulation role play. Such contextual information is valuable and can substitute for detail in role briefs. Some contextual information about the motives of the 'players' and the nature of the social processes or practical procedures operating can be very useful. Again, too much detail can be counterproductive. Extensive contextual information emphasises the simulation/case study aspect at the expense of personal involvement in the role play.

Scripted role plays
Scripts are useful when the purpose is to demonstrate something to the audience, or observers (as with drama), but should be avoided when it is the experience of the participants which is most important.

It is difficult for those playing roles to be observant and reflective at the same time. It is useful to nominate observers to provide the 'evidence' for subsequent discussion. Observers can use checklists: related either to general models of skill development (e.g. Carl Rogers' principles of non directiveness) or to specific issues to do with the content of the role play. Observers can time and stop role plays. Observers can be assigned to each participant in the role play, or each can have a different observer brief. Observers can chair debriefings.

Variations on straightforward role plays can also be used:

Time out
It can be useful if any participant can temporarily halt a role play - because he/she is stuck, distressed or wants to explore an idea immediately. All involved move to a physically separate space and discuss the issue or problem. They then return to the role play, starting either from the point at which time out was called, or from an earlier point. Time out can be used to try different ways of approaching a particular difficult moment, or to give different people the chance to role play in the same situation.

Psychodrama usually involves more participants than a role play, and recreates a whole scene (e.g. a classroom) rather than an interaction between two people (though there are various kinds of personal development exercises which are also referred to as psychodramas). There is a 'director' who can call "Cut!" and freeze the action. Participants can then be 'interviewed' about their feelings, what they really want to do or say, etc. These revelations are heard in public and then the director calls "Roll!" and the action continues. Psychodrama is particularly useful for examining what is going on in a situation familiar to the person who is the focus of the drama.

Alter ego
All participants in the role play have another person standing behind them with their hands on their shoulders, acting as alter egos. The alter ego says out loud, during the role play, what he or she thinks the person is really thinking or feeling, e.g.:

Participant: "Oh hello! How very nice to see you!"

Alter ego: "Oh no, not him again!"

Structured debriefing
Debriefing, the discussion which takes place after the experience of role playing, during which participants reflect on and learn from the experience, should be allocated plenty of time . A five-minute role play can easily generate enough material to keep a lively discussion going for half an hour. As participants can feel defensive about their behaviour during the role play, and can have difficulty separating their experience of the specific situation from general principles to be drawn from the experience, a structured debriefing is recommended. This is one such structure.

1 All reflect in silence and prepare comments
2 Each role-playing participant in turn makes uninterrupted comments
3 The observers make uninterrupted comments
4 All discuss the role play
5 Participants are helped to return to 'reality' and to get out of their roles
6 All discuss general conclusions without referring to details of role play

The most important feature of de briefing is to separate discussion of the content and experience o the role play from general discussion of what can be learnt from it. A detailed breakdown of the stages of de -briefing which follow the experiential learning cycle can be found in Section 4.3.5.

Further reading

Lewis, R. Using Role Play- An Introductory Guide Basic Skills Unit, Cambridge. 1980.
van Ments, M. The Effective Use Of Role Play - A Handbook For Trainers And Teachers Kogan Page London. 1983.


4.4.5    Assessing through substitute experiences

Assessment tasks can also be set in the context of real situations, as with ROLE PLAY ESSAYS. Instead of simply setting conventional essays, you could set them in a simulated real life setting. For example you could:

Such tasks require that the learner reflects on the simulated situation and applies knowledge to making specific plans or proposals. Assessment tasks can also be based on substitute experiences instead of hypothetical situations, as with 'DOING IT' ESSAYS. For example, trainee teachers can be shown a brief video of a classroom in action and asked specific questions about it such as:

"Advise the teacher on alternative methods of maintaining control than those used."

"What types of questioning were used by the teacher? Suggest alternatives. "

Such a task requires learners to record their experience of the video, reflect upon it in the light of their knowledge, and propose action. The task may also allow a second viewing of the video, aided by an observation schedule prompted by the first viewing and the questions, so taking the learners round the experiential cycle twice within one assessment task.


Substitutes for direct work experience are useful to:

practise skills in safe contexts

illustrate theory in action

develop interpersonal skills

increase personal involvement in learning and enliven topics

derive theory or general principles from examples

prepare learners for work experience

focus attention on experiences which are difficult or impossible to provide in any other way.

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Created by Claire Andrew
Page created 10 January 2001