There's more to effective learning via simulation than merely having a great time weeding through a complex branching story or beating out co-workers in a virtual free-market bloodbath. Along with the meat of the experience, it is critical to provide employees with a side dish of guided reflection. In fact, says Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Austin, Texas-based e-learning and simulation provider Enspire Learning, about 70 percent to 80 percent of learning from simulations comes from reflection or feedback from the experience. "You've been taken out of your regular work environment, and you've been transported into another place where you've been pushed out of your comfort zone, and that in itself has some value," Billhardt says, "but the real value comes in when you reflect on what has happened, and why you've reacted in certain ways." That's where debriefing comes into play, he emphasizes. "If you have 10-minute simulation chunk that teaches a very concrete concept," he says, "the best way to debrief that is to give people immediate feedback, and say, 'Here's what you did, here's what you should have done, and here's what other people did.'"
One smart way to do it, Billhardt says, is to combine the simulation with a 360-feedback evaluation. Live coaching is often made a part of the simulation-based courses Enspire puts together to "draw out some of the learning objectives that the program organizer wants to accomplish."
In immersive simulations, in which the learner himself is represented by an avatar, or character, feedback can even be communicated virtually. One benefit of providing feedback through characters within the simulation is it can sometimes more closely mirror the kind of social cues indicating success or failure in the real world. If you're training call center reps, for instance, there may be more effective ways of communicating performance on an online exercise than a simple "Correct!" or "Incorrect!" alert, or even the presentation of an overall score at the end. Instead, you could show your learners they're doing a shoddy job by having a virtual customer hang up on them, or having said virtual stand-in request to speak to their manager, suggests Dave Fisher, assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "Most of the products out there worth their salt have some feedback built in," he emphasizes.
Feedback also takes the form of deciding how far you think your learners should stray from the right answers or procedures before the system puts them back on the proper track. You might want to establish evaluative midpoints in the program in which participants must complete a given task in the correct fashion before being allowed to continue, says Jonathan Kaye, president of Philadelphia-based simulation provider Equipment Simulations. If training nurses to program a medical device, for instance, their progress might be stopped if they seem to be "wondering too much in the interface," or clicking too many "buttons" in experimentation to figure out the next step to take. "In designing that type of training, you have to decide how far you're going to let them go. Are you just going to stop them immediately when they don't do the exact step?" Kaye says.
Along with immediate feedback that your learner has made the wrong choice, the simulation might include media such as video to illustrate what he or she should have done instead, or what the real life consequences would be for doing it incorrectly. A program with such capacity "assesses and addresses the learner's needs on the fly," says Lyn McCall, chief operating officer of Potomac, Md.-based simulation provider Will Interactive.
A simulation teaching the hazards of alcohol abuse, for example, might have a text block, or even a video, pop up on the dangers of drinking too much for learners who indicated they would order an imprudent number of cocktails, or that they see nothing wrong with slinging back a few before heading to their post as air traffic controller. Their more sage peers, however, who indicated they would never think of doing such a thing, would be able to continue advancing through the simulation without the primer. —M.W.