The Department of Politics used a Problem Based Learning approach in their Dilemmas of Intervention module for postgraduate students. Students worked in groups that were assigned to a country and had to respond to a simulated conflict situation in the fictional country of Yorkania. Materials to support this task were released on the VLE and groups then had to write a weekly blog post summarising the developments in their country, which would then act as a shared resource within the VLE. Thanks to Dr Audra Mitchell and PhD student Sydney Calkin for featuring in our video.
Keywords: collaboration, group work, critical skills, blogs
Aims and Objectives
This Conflict Simulation is used as part of a module for MA students that studies international intervention in its many forms and gives students a broad understanding of the actors, institutions, dilemmas, and theories. The module includes a large independent research element (including weekly team-based ‘research briefings’ on the module themes) structured around a multi-session conflict simulation.
The conflict simulation aims to:
- Allow students to engage deeply in a case study and apply this knowledge
- Provide students who study peace and conflict issues with an opportunity to gain some applied ‘experience’ of responding to emergent crises without engaging in dangerous, traumatizing and/or unethical fieldwork experiences in conflict-affected countries
- Encourage independent learning and creativity among students through self-directed research tasks and Problem-based Learning scenarios. These tasks rely on student initiative and provide scope for students to direct their own learning
- Engage students with a range of learning styles by combining small group participation, role-play, independent research projects, blogging, and presentations to classmates
- Provide students with a different kind of learning experience (in contrast to the lecture-seminar structure of most politics teaching) in which they are required to actively participate in directing their learning, to challenge themselves and their groups, and to cultivate an area of personal expertise in the field, all while tying the simulation closely to module assessment and learning outcomes
Students were divided into six groups and each group was assigned the role of a country (US, UK, Russia, France, China, Rwanda). Each week, students were assigned a research task corresponding
to the content of a mini-lecture. Students conducted independent research on their country case study and work as a group to prepare a presentation on the topic. The first four weeks of term involved mini lectures, group work, and class discussion. Groups had weekly research tasks to complete, which asked them to consider their country’s position on the issues presented in the mini-lecture and readings. Each week, all groups gave short presentations answering the research questions provided by the instructor on the VLE. This format allowed groups to develop a robust knowledge of their country, its foreign policy, and approach to intervention. They also had the opportunity to learn about a range of other countries by listening to and commenting on the presentations of other groups, producing broad-based knowledge of the subject matter.
During weeks 8,9,10 (3x 2-hour seminars) groups participated in a simulated conflict in which they were asked to play the role of their country in responding to a humanitarian and military crisis in the fictional country of Yorkania. The Yorkania conflict was introduced to students through briefing materials, media coverage, NGO reports, and other materials which students were required to evaluate and analyze. Each week, groups had to write a blog post summarizing the developments and their country’s position on the Yorkania crisis and the possibility of intervention. The Week 10 simulation challenged groups to agree on a draft UN resolution to respond to the crisis, always careful to use their research backgrounds to reflect on the position their country would take to intervention in Yorkania. At the end of the term, students wrote a summative essay and included the Yorkania case study as supporting evidence, citing it like a ‘real life’ conflict.
The simulation is highly interactive and requires a range of resources.
Online: Weekly research briefings are posted on the VLE, producing a shared resource. Students were encouraged to use draw on materials and research produced by other groups to support their essay projects (giving credit to original research where appropriate). This enabled a collaborative approach to the research process, which mirrors that adopted by many international organizations and NGOs. The simulation makes use of the VLE and online learning tools. It requires students to do extensive research using online resources including books, journals, policy documents, NGO reports, and new media. Groups share their findings with each other in class through presentations which are then available on the VLE for the rest of the term. During the three weeks of simulation, groups must write a weekly blog post on the VLE which can be accessed by all other groups and the instructor. Groups are encouraged to use this blogging tool to communicate with each other outside of class and to further develop the simulation online. The blog posts, as well as materials from weekly research briefings, were made available through the VLE to support the essay-writing process. This enabled a collaborative approach to research.
In-class: Briefings are distributed to students each week in class. These involve two kinds of briefing materials: at first, students receive basic materials outlining the Yorkania conflict and some deliberately minimal background information on the country, though instructors should be careful not to allow the simulated conflict to too closely ‘resemble’ any real-life conflict so students have more scope for invention in the simulation and so that they can apply their learning to the simulation rather than trying to figure out ‘which conflict’ is it. Secondly, weekly briefing materials were distributed to update students on current developments in the Yorkania conflict. These materials are designed to reflect different perspectives on the conflict and varying degrees of reliability, so students are challenged to interpret conflicting information and question the legitimacy of various sources.
The development of the simulation was funded by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund (lead researcher: Dr Audra Mitchell, research assistant: Sydney Calkin).
Assessment: The final, summative essay for the module required that students reflect explicitly on the simulation sessions, using them along with ‘real life’ empirical examples to test and apply their knowledge, and to support their arguments. This ensured that the simulation process was treated as more than just a game, and that students had an opportunity to reflect on what they had learned by taking part. Students were made aware that they must write about the simulation in their essays from the first session of the module, meaning that they commenced the simulation knowing that they would need to reflect on it later. Students were encouraged to use documents provided during the simulation (both briefings from the instructor and blog posts from other groups) as supporting evidence for the Yorkania conflict.
This conflict simulation was successful in several ways. All groups participated to a satisfactory extent (and some to an impressive degree), writing weekly blog posts and bringing their country-specific research to bear on the simulation. The simulation format managed to help a range of students to participate so that even those students who were less confident in their language abilities or shy in the classroom took part in the simulation and contributed actively. The three simulation sessions were lively and involved; students seemed enthusiastic and engaged. In the final session, the draft resolutions prepared by groups were impressive and comprehensive, generally reflecting the positions of their case study countries.
The instructor reported that most students managed skillfully to use the conflict simulation case study in their assessed essays, demonstrating the value of the simulation in supporting module learning outcomes. The simulation research assistant is currently working on a project to develop methods for linking simulation to assessment. Overall, the simulation was successful and met its aims to promote problem-based creative learning, active participation, and understanding of module material through direct role-play engagement with the theoretical and practical issues under study.
This year’s simulation was also successful in facilitating the use of simulation lessons in assessment. The students were required to write a summative essay at the end of term, chosen from a list of essay questions, and all students were required to use the conflict simulation as ‘evidence’ for their essay. This engaged students in critical reflection throughout the simulation and encouraged them to draw on their personal experience of the issues discussed in the essay. Furthermore, because the activities and materials produced during the simulation were to be used in the summative essay, students were encouraged to think carefully about their essay process long before they began writing. The use of groups’ blog posts in the essay further promoted collaborative and creative learning.
Transferable lessons learned
Simulation teaching can be very successful if students are adequately engaged and carefully guided by an instructor. This year’s simulation was very successful because students were asked to anchor their participation in the simulation to a specific country case study and to reflect on the foreign policy of this state to determine their actions in the simulation; this proved crucially important in focusing student participation and blending the fictional conflict with concrete learning outcomes. Ideally, after the simulation finishes, students can be challenged to critically reflect on simulation events and the extent to which they were realistic, e.g. did each group’s behavior and position on intervention reflect the actions of the country they represent? Why or why not?
Simulation also provides an excellent way to engage students with a range of academic backgrounds, language abilities, and learning styles. Confident students can lead in-class role play, while quieter students who depend more on pre-class preparation can participate more actively in the formal presentations or blog posts. Moreover, for all students, the open-ended problem-based nature of the simulation encourages creativity and independent initiative from highly motivated students. The simulation productively combined a range of learning styles to allow for participation from all students.
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Case study last updated: January 2014