How to Stimulate Critical Thinking with Simulation-Based Learning

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Why You Must Stimulate Critical Thinking - Don’t Kill it with Your Training

Traditional audio-visual slide-show presentations are useful information sharing tools. Yet, they are one-dimensional and rather boring and their ability to engage learners is under scrutiny.

"Through PowerPoint, everything has a tendency to resemble a pitch rather than a discussion: information is ‘storyboarded’, as for a movie – but the presentation is not a movie and the presenter is rarely Brad Pitt. No wonder we are bored." ~ Andrew Smith1

The alternative is simulation and scenario-based learning to make learning ‘come alive’.

Businesses no longer want employees to know repeatable facts. They want critical thinking skills

Employees must learn to respond appropriately in the workplace.

What is scenario-based learning and why does it work?

Scenario-based learning can be defined as interactive learning activities in which students are presented with complex problem-based or case-based learning. Students must assess a life-like situation and make decisions to handle the case or resolve the problem.

Evans and Taylor define scenarios "as stories focused on a user or group of users, which would provide information on the nature of the users, the goals they want to achieve and the context in which the activities will take place."2

Scenario-based learning is valuable for effective on-the-job learning. Trainees must apply new skills to solve problems in context. Leaders can improve management skills and learn best practices to address difficult situations.

Complex branched scenarios are an effective tool for developing problem-solving skills. They test critical thinking and procedural memory.

Scenario-based educating offers benefits that traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ or slideshow presentations cannot match:

  • Engages learners. Trainees must focus, analyze, reason and refer to memory to achieve desirable outcomes. When presented in a narrative form with a cast of characters training may resemble a game. Learners can enjoy this immersive experience. 
  • Increases attention span. A complex scenario may hold the learners' attention longer than a lecture presentation. Quizzes and worksheets are also less effective if learners can't remember the answers.
  •  Provides immediate feedback.  Learners can figure out what they did wrong as they see the consequences of an action. They can reflect and improve their decisions during later attempts. 
  •  Provides a safe environment. Learners  can practice in safe environments. Their mistakes will not cause harm or loss.  Instant feedback helps to reinforce the right action in a given situation. Learning from consequences promotes retention and desirable behavior. This safe environment is particularly beneficial in high-consequence industries.

Scenario-based learning provides optimal outcomes for the following goals:

  • To improve soft-skills (e.g. customer service/support scenarios)
  • To prepare for leadership positions (e.g. managing conflicts, driving cultural change)
  • To train on professional skills (e.g. supplier negotiations, systems maintenance)
  • To train on compliance requirements (e.g. workplace safety and harassment)

How effective is learning with simulations?

Simulations mimic real-life scenarios to facilitate experiential learning. They are non-linear, and like scenario-based learning, they develop critical thinking skills. Simulations can be role-playing activities, games or any other task reflecting a real-life situation.

There might be more than one correct response, but one will be optimal. This may be a happy customer or a successful ordering procedure.

 “The advantages of simulation-based educational interventions include the ability to provide immediate feedback, repetitive practice learning, the integration of simulation into the curriculum, the ability to adjust the difficulty level, opportunities to individualize learning, and the adaptability to diverse types of learning strategies.” 3

After a simulated experience, learners are often motivated to make suggestions. They often identify gaps in existing instruction. In contrast, after traditional presentations, lecturers have to coax trainees to give feedback.

What are 3D simulations and how do they work?

Simulations incorporating 3D elements are visually engaging and can reduce the boredom and monotony of traditional teaching. The learning-by-doing approach can build learners’ confidence and encourage their creativity. They learn to make good decisions when faced with choices.

Designers may opt for low-fidelity or high-fidelity simulations. Low-fidelity simulations replicate the scenario but simplify it. For example, the technical skill of how to insert a needle is only a small part of what a nurse needs tutelage in. Research4 found that high-fidelity simulations are best for nursing education.

High-fidelity simulations aim for realistic representations of interactions, relationships and scenarios. They are vital when training is high risk or expensive. Examples are flight training for pilots, medical procedures or underground mining emergency procedures.

Simulator-based education is growing in popularity as a pedagogical approach. Organizations want students to practice their technical skills and develop critical thinking skills safely.

Real-life situational experiences help employees develop decision-making skills.

Instead of boring learners with facts, interactive simulations and scenario-based activities keeps learning "alive."

SimTutor’s authoring tool allows you to build interactive simulation eLearning experiences quickly and easily. Cut storyboarding time by 40% and promote critical thinking skills.


  1. Smith, A. How Powerpoint is Killing Critical Thought 
  2. Evans, Diane, and Josie Taylor. "The role of user scenarios as the central piece of the development jigsaw puzzle." Mobilelearning anytimeeverywhere 63 (2005).
  3. Issenberg SB, McGaghie WC, Petrusa ER, Lee Gordon D, Scalese RJ, Features and uses of high-fidelity medical simulations that lead to effective learning: a BEME systematic review.  Med Teach. 2005 Jan; 27(1):10-28.
  4. Ibid


About the author


SimTutor Inc is a global leader in simulation-based learning.

SimTutor Author is an authoring tool designed to help you build interactive procedural simulations and branched scenarios for any industry where realistic, just-in-time, measurable training is critical. 

SIMTICS is a library of ready-to-use simulations for learning medical and healthcare procedures and skills, powered by SimTutor Author.