Simulations and Student Learning

In the fields of international relations and political science, simulations have long been utilized as both research and teaching tools. Simulations enable researchers to replicate real-world situations in experimental settings, observe decision-making, and generate predictions about the operations of the international system that might inform policymaking (Starkey and Blake 2001, 537). Over the last half-century, the utilization of simulations as a research tool has been greatly surpassed by its widespread application as a teaching and training method—not only in international relations but also in medical education (Lane, Slavin, and Ziv 2001; Rosen 2008), military training (Smith 2010), business education (Xu and Yang 2010), foreign language acquisition (Garcia-Carbonell et al. 2001), and a range of other fields. As noted by Margaret Gedler (2004), simulations are “evolving case studies of a particular social or physical reality” in which the goal for the student is “to take a bona fide role, address the issues, threats, or problems arising in the simulation, and experience the effects of one’s decisions” (573). In simulations, student participants interact with other players in a group setting that occurs over multiple iterations. As they engage with other actors, who themselves act and react, changing the scenario, students must improvise, adapting their strategies and actions to be consistent with their particular role descriptions, which “include goals, constraints, background information, and responsibilities” (573). Research has indicated that simulations can play an important role in enhancing student learning. As noted by Robert Sternberg (1998), interactive learning environments encourage students to develop in five areas associated with the developing expertise model: “metacognitive skills, learning skills, thinking skills, and knowledge and motivation” (17–18).1 Simulations require the use of both cognitive and metacognitive skills by presenting players with “ill-defined problems” that they might try to resolve (Gredler 2004, 572) Replicating a situation often faced by real-world actors, students are confronted with problems shaped by “authentic causal or relational processes” in which there may be no specific, discrete choices to choose from; no clear permissible steps that might be taken to resolve the problem; or unclear or conflicting goals (Gredler 2004, 573). Importantly, as students strategically make choices and take actions, they receive feedback in the form of reactions of other participating students or from changes in the “status of the problem”—e.g., in a medical simulation, a patient’s condition changes, or in a war game, the adversary changes its tactics (Gredler 2004, 573). In a group decision-making simulation, students frequently apply metacognitive skills (Schraw and Moshman 1995)—they think about their own thinking and that of others—as they must explicitly state how and why they came to their particular conclusions, consider and evaluate how others came to their conclusions, and consider how their own decisions might have impacted the decisions of the larger group and the outcome of the simulation. In addition, research suggests that simulations help students retain information for longer periods of time (Nishikawa and Jaeger 2011), improve their public speaking and presentation skills (Frederking 2005, 385), connect abstract theories and concepts to the real world (Biziouras 2013), and improve their empathy and awareness of multiple perspectives (Baylouny 2009). However, as noted by Haack (2008), “merely taking part in activities—‘doing politics’—may not be sufficient to achieve deep learning” (395). To achieve true deep learning, the issues raised in simulations must be deliberately connected to central concepts in a given discipline through effective scaffolds or links to other related courses (through co-requisites or prerequisites), allowing for the integration of theoretical and experiential learning (Hack 2008, 400, 408).

Model Diplomacy

Model Diplomacy is a free interactive simulation program developed by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The program is designed to be used primarily in a classroom setting. Students are assigned specific roles on the National Security Council (NSC), such as the president of the United States, national security advisor, secretary of defense, secretary of state, and director of national intelligence. In meetings overseen by a student playing the role of the president, the members of the NSC deliberate a range of policy options before ultimately determining a course of action that the United States will take to address an international crisis. Many simulations also have alternative settings that allow students to role-play members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As of July 2022, Model Diplomacy has nineteen available cases, addressing topics such as nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, climate change, humanitarian intervention, cyberwarfare, and infectious disease. Of these, four cases, “Dispute in the East China Sea,” “Cyber Clash with China,” “North Korean Nuclear Threat,” and a historical case, “The Korean War,” specifically focus on East Asia. Several additional pop-up cases, such as “Uighur Repression in Xinjiang,” “Strategic Ambiguity toward Taiwan,” and “A Threat to Taiwan,” also present Asia-specific scenarios. These pop-up simulations provide a simplified version of a case, designed to be played in one class session. The case topics are hypothetical but are based on real-world scenarios (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.).

The Model Diplomacy website provides information on each of the cases that describes the decision facing the NSC, gives recommended policy options, and provides background content on the NSC as a body and the country or issue under examination, as well as a brief history of US policies relevant to the case. The website is visually appealing and rich in content, containing short video clips of interviews with CFR fellows, academics, and policymakers, along with links to outside sources, including academic works and relevant primary documents. Once an instructor has added students to the case on the website and given them role assignments, each student receives a customized email that briefs him or her on the case under discussion as well as his or her role assignment and associated goals and responsibilities.

In preparing for the simulation, each student completes a brief 600-to-900-word position memo that lays out his or her recommendations on how the president might respond to the crisis under discussion. Each student writes the memo from the point of view of his or her role and should be consistent with the institution-specific goals of that role. Additionally, students may complete post-simulation policy review memos in which they lay out their preferred courses of action and critique the president’s ultimate decision. The simulation itself unfolds over three rounds. First, all NSC members give opening statements of no more than three minutes. In these opening statements, students articulate their initial positions on the crisis and are expected to field follow-up questions from the president. In the second round, students engage in an open deliberation. Each student presents and defends or adapts his or her preferred course of action, critiques alternative approaches, and considers novel or blended approaches. During the deliberation, students are both competitive, seeking to see their institutional goals and individual preferences reflected in the final outcome, and collaborative, seeking to forge a consensus by finding common ground and shared goals with other actors. To add to the complexity and rigor of the deliberation, the instructor can introduce flash points into the simulation, in which new, unfolding events occur or new intelligence is introduced that further complicates the scenario. In the third round, each student except for the president gives a final policy recommendation. In these speeches, each student has the opportunity to take stock of recommendations and information revealed in the earlier phases of the simulation and give the president one final recommendation on what course of action to take in the scenario. The president then takes a private recess, accompanied by any advisors he or she chooses, and formulates a final presidential decision. Finally, he or she returns to the larger meeting and announces the course of action that will be taken in response to the crisis. Following the conclusion of the simulation, the president composes a presidential directive that details the policies to be taken. Model Diplomacy also provides for an additional, optional round of deliberation that requires students to role-play representatives of the members of the United Nations Security Council. At the conclusion of the role-play, students abandon their roles and engage in a wrap-up session facilitated by the instructor in which they reflect upon the final decision and consider whether or not it was the most optimal of the available options. They also reflect upon the foreign policymaking process itself and consider how various actors were able to influence the president’s decision.

In the Classroom

My own introduction to Model Diplomacy came through participation in the Council on Foreign Relations College and University Educators Workshop in New York in April 2016, a meeting that occurs annually each spring. To better understand the program, university instructors were invited to participate in the role-play themselves. I first implemented the role-play in a classroom setting in 2018 in a May term course, International Crisis Simulations, offered at a small liberal arts college in the South. With sixteen students, the course enrollment was relatively small and included a range of grade levels (three seniors, three juniors, two sophomores and eight first-year students). May term courses are four weeks in length and have two-hour class sessions that meet five days per week. During the course, students completed three simulations, including “North Korean Nuclear Threat.” For the fall 2018 full-semester course, Politics of Asia, the twelve enrolled students completed two simulations, “The Korean War” and “Dispute in the East China Sea.” During the winter 2019 term, students in Political Development, an upper-division course with an enrollment of twenty-four, completed two simulations. These applications of Model Diplomacy simulations in three course settings with enrollments ranging from twelve to twenty-four and varied duration (one four-week course and two fourteen-week courses) suggests that the activity works well in relatively small courses (Saiya 2017, 244). Because Model Diplomacy typically involves around fourteen unique roles, larger classes require students to be paired up and share roles.

In each course, I provided several modifications to the standard Model Diplomacy simulation. I included flash points in each offering, emailing new intelligence briefings to students representing specific, relevant agencies during the course of the simulation. For each case, the Model Diplomacy website provides standard flash points in the instructor-only “Case Prep” section. I would often customize these flash points and draft my own original flash points. When they received flash points, the students would interrupt their meeting to announce new developments that added new layers of complexity to the simulation and compelled students to improvise and adapt their established policy proposals to changing circumstances. Flash points also helped to address lulls in the conversation and served to remind students of alternative courses of action that were available to them. For example, in several simulations, the class was focused on more coercive policy options—such as military strikes, covert operations, or economic sanctions—early in the deliberation. I would then email the permanent representative to the United Nations or the secretary of state with a flash point informing him or her that the opposing party, often North Korea or China, had made a diplomatic overture. The arrival of the flash point would often encourage the class to think more broadly about the situation and consider the wider array of tools available to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

In each simulation, I granted the president, assisted by the vice president and national security advisor, wide latitude to moderate and structure the meeting, setting time limits and rules of recognition. To ensure that all students had sufficient time to speak and contribute and that each meeting continued at a relatively quick pace, in each simulation, I gave the national security advisor the responsibility to maintain a speakers list, recognize students, and enforce a time limit of one minute for each speaker. Additionally, I granted the president the power to call one five-to-ten-minute recess during each meeting. This enabled the president to convene short private meetings outside the classroom with an “executive group” of close advisors—generally the vice president, national security advisor, and several invited NSC members. When the president and the executive group left the room, I would encourage the remaining students to break into small working groups to discuss and refine their policy proposals, in which they would often use their computers to find relevant outside information. Various student presidents would also utilize distinctive strategies and leadership styles in structuring meetings. Some presidents would ask NSC members to vote on particular policy options, taking hand counts to assess the mood of the room. Others would draft and circulate detailed instructions directing various agencies to research particular courses of action. In a recent simulation, the president identified two agency heads with distinct policy recommendations and directed them to form and lead smaller working groups that might oversee the drafting of more comprehensive policy approaches that might be voted on by the larger group.

One risk associated with taking a hands-off approach in conducting a simulation is that the students entrusted with leading NSC meetings, namely the president and the national security advisor, take on an outsized role in determining the realism of the exercise. They are also facilitators who determine how and when other students may speak during the meeting. Because of this, instructors should take certain precautions in setting the stage for the simulation. First, instructors should be attentive to which students are selected to serve as president and national security advisor. In a review of the Model Diplomacy program, Nialy Saiya (2017) recommends selecting particularly “intelligent and extroverted” students for these roles, as having students who are “unprepared, withdrawn, or unprofessional” can negatively impact the simulation (244). For each simulation run in my courses, I have given a pop quiz related to the simulation’s content and allowed the highest-scoring students to select their roles first. Prior to role selection, I make sure to emphasize that these roles carry significant responsibility, require a greater share of the work in the simulation, and can be stressful. In my two most recent classes with simulations, I have encouraged students who have participated in earlier simulations to consider serving as president or national security advisor. This process has generally produced leaders who have proven to be very effective facilitators for the simulations. I would caution against discouraging less extroverted students from serving in these leadership roles, as Model Diplomacy simulations also work well for students who embrace a range of leadership styles. In my own courses, several more introverted students have proven to be particularly effective presidents and national security advisors, facilitating rather than dominating conversation and engaging in more active listening than some of their more extroverted peers.

Secondly, in addition to being careful about selecting students for leading roles, it is also important to provide occasional support and guidance during the simulation. In order to limit my presence in the conversation, I give private sidebar recommendations on how to conduct the meeting to the president and national security advisor, such as the adjustment of time allotments for speakers or the adding of names of all students to the speakers list to encourage more and varied student participation. I also give recommendations on the use of recesses, recommend the use of hand counts for NSCs that are sharply divided on policy questions, and directly weigh into the conversation if students make inappropriate comments or the discourse becomes overly heated. In providing this support, I attempt to do so as discretely as possible by passing notes to the president or speaking to him or her privately. This ensures that the meeting maintains its realism and that the president maintains his or her position of leadership in the meeting and remains the focus of attention for student participants.

Third, it is important to ensure that students are well prepared and have sufficient background knowledge necessary to engage with the simulation at a high level. Previous research has noted that because simulations occupy significant course time, they reduce the amount of class time that can be used for traditional course activities (Asal and Blake 2006). Moreover, to encourage deep learning, simulations and active learning activities need to be well situated in the course curriculum. As noted by Haack (2008), “Active learning activities do not guarantee deep learning any more than lectures (generally regarded as passive learning activities) if the scaffold of learning in which they are embedded is weak” (396). The Model Diplomacy website provides students with general background information on the National Security Council and the NSC decision-making process, the “NSC Guide,” as well as scenario-specific information, under the “Case” section, that lays out the decision point and provides a historical backgrounder as well as a timeline. To encourage students to do more pre-simulation preparation, I require the submission of a graded 600-to-900-word policy memo at the start of the simulation. In their policy memos, students are expected to supplement the materials provided on the Model Diplomacy website with outside research as they craft policy options and issue recommendations on behalf of their respective agencies. In the process of researching and writing their policy memos, students gain a deeper level of familiarity with the case under examination as well as the advantages and disadvantages of various policies available to the president. Additionally, I use two or more full class meetings as case-specific backgrounders, where I introduce case material in class and also allow students ten to fifteen minutes to meet in small groups to discuss the case and workshop their policy memos and opening statements. Moreover, in each course that includes a simulation, I make sure to choose simulations that complement the course’s existing content and schedule the simulations after course units that provide useful background to the simulation. For example, in Politics of Asia, I placed a historical case, “The Korean War,” in which the United States NSC debated whether or not to advance past the thirty-eight parallel after the Incheon landing, early in the semester and after the students had been given some exposure to the international politics of East Asia from the mid-nineteenth century to the early Cold War. In determining a US plan of action, students referred to the 1949 victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, recent in relation to the simulation’s setting, as well as the Truman Doctrine and an emerging US containment strategy in East Asia. In the course’s second simulation, “Dispute in the East China Sea,” the NSC deliberated a US response to the contemporary maritime territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Prior to the simulation, students examined US security policy in East Asia during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as well as the history of Sino-Japanese relations from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, particularly noting the shifting balance of power between the two countries during China’s economic rise over the last four decades. To prepare for the simulation “Cyber Clash with China,” in which the Nasdaq Stock Exchange is crippled by a cyberattack launched by an underground collective potentially backed by the Chinese government, students in Politics of China completed readings and discussions focused on emerging US and Chinese disputes over the legitimate use of cyberspace for traditional and economic espionage as well as military operations, debates over “cyber sovereignty” versus a “free and open” internet, and disputes over the international norms and regulations of a global internet (Harold, Libicki, and Cevallos 2016, 6). In each simulation, students studied content related to the politics of East Asia and then assumed the position of a decision-maker, applying this content to develop a role-specific policy response and plan of action designed to address a related unfolding international dispute.

The differing scheduling of the three courses presented challenges in integrating the Model Diplomacy simulations into the course curricula. For the two full-semester courses, Politics of Asia and Political Development, students had several weeks of conceptual and case-specific background information delivered through lectures and discussion prior to participating in simulations in which they utilized that information. In the May term course, International Crisis Simulations, class sessions took place in lengthier two-hour meetings, but the course itself was compressed into four weeks. While students received a comparable amount of class time to acquire background information related to the simulation and completed the same assignment to prepare for the simulation (a written policy memo), they did not have as much time in between classes to complete assigned readings, work on written assignments, and ruminate on course concepts or case material. Additionally, I faced the challenge of maintaining student engagement and interest over longer two-hour class periods during background sessions. Following some of the best practices for compressed or intensive courses suggested by William Kops (2014), I maintained largely the same syllabus and learning goals but made some modifications to my teaching approach. These included varying classroom activity more often, delivering shorter lectures, and incorporating more breakout sessions for students to study readings and other materials in small groups. Additionally, I shifted more reading and writing assignments so that they might be completed over weekends. The compressed format of the May term course also provided certain advantages. Because students were able to concentrate on a single course and met every day during a longer period of time, interactions appeared to be more intense and focused, resulting in a more immersive classroom experience. Students seemed to takes on their assigned roles with greater vigor, resulting in more emotive and realistic simulations. Additionally, in classroom discussions during the May term, students would more frequently draw comparisons to previous simulations (which had occurred recently—only a week earlier) and apply lessons and strategies learned from those previous experiences to subsequent simulations.

At the culmination of each simulation, students participated in an instructor-led debrief, in which students discussed the final decision and its possible consequences, reviewed the specifics of the case under examination, and reflected upon the decision-making process itself. During each wrap-up session, I took detailed notes to record students’ immediate reactions to the simulation. Additionally, in three courses, International Crisis Simulations (May term 2018), Politics of Asia (fall term 2018), and Political Development (winter term 2019), forty-six total students completed an online survey consisting of five closed-ended questions2 and six open-ended questions (see Table 1). For closed-ended questions, respondents were asked to choose from five values along a Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Table 1

Results of anonymous post-simulation surveys completed by three classes of undergraduate students in May term 2018, fall term 2018, and winter 2019.

Indicator Crisis Simulations Politics of Asia Political Development Total
I improved my understanding of how the United States determines its foreign policy 4.56 4.5 4.5 4.52
I improved my ability to participate in collaboration and group decision-making 4.31 4.63 4.33 4.38
I was successful in influencing the President’s final decision. 4.06 3.88 3.63 3.83
The President made the correct decision in the simulation 3.73 3.88 4.11 3.93
I would recommend that simulations be used in future Political Science course offerings. n/a 4.75 4.74 4.74
N 16 8 18 42

Overall, students reported that their participation in the simulations enhanced their understanding of the foreign policymaking process and ability to participate in collective decision-making and strongly recommended that simulations be offered in future courses, indicating a high level of student interest and engagement. When asked to specially describe “what insights, if any, that [they] learned about how the United States determines its foreign policy,” students gave a range of responses. Students, particularly in the compressed May term course, frequently reported that addressing “emotions,” “preconceived notions,” and “personal conflicts” were important elements of group decision-making. In all three courses, students reported that foreign policymaking often operated under serious “time constraints” and was more complex than expected—it was “complicated by [the] varying view points and goals of each department” and required that decision-makers needed to make sure that “all contingencies should be accounted for.” One student described an experience of being surprised by “the expansive details that each department [was] responsible for synthesizing and communicating in a succinct way to the President.”

When asked to explain if “you learn[ed] anything about yourself and your abilities from participating in the simulation,” students emphasized the need to “make concessions,” to “modify … proposed plans to accommodate others,” to “collaborate [because] it creates cohesion within the group,” and to bring the most “factual evidence” to a meeting to ensure one’s “plan … prevailed [within] the group.” Many students indicated that they were made aware of their own personal traits and tendencies, such as being “dogmatic, easily persuaded, overly sensitive, easily frustrated,” or a “control freak,” and several students expressed surprise at how invested they became in playing their roles and having their preferred policies prevail in the simulation. One wrote, “The role I had made a huge impact on how I acted as I sometimes advocated for policies that I would normally disagree with in my normal life” and another even wrote, “I learned that I am not impervious to the Stanford Prison Experiment.” Such comments reflected the seriousness with which students embraced their particular roles in the simulation and even became, to some degree, emotionally invested in their roles and the successful resolution of the (fictional) scenario the group was responsible for navigating.

Students were asked to respond to a closed-ended question in which they evaluated their own effectiveness in influencing the president’s final decision in the simulation. They were also asked to specifically “describe any challenges you encountered,” and explain why they were able or unable to overcome these challenges. In discussing challenges faced in the simulation, students frequently described the problem of grasping the complexity of the scenario at hand, including the legal and political repercussions of various policy options. Many referred to the challenge of developing a policy consensus while dealing with the rigid personal beliefs and preferences of other actors, agencies that had competing institutional interests, and students “with heightened emotions” who were “taking this too serious[ly].” As revealed in wrap-up session discussions and their open-ended responses to the prompt “Describe any strateg[ies] designed to influence the decision-making process during [the] simulation,” students applied a range of strategies designed to maximize their influence over the final policy determined by the president. Many students described intentional efforts to build alliances or coalitions with like-minded agency heads by forging compromises and bargaining over various aspects of proposed policies. Additionally, some students described a strategy of entering the simulation with highly formulated policy proposals and remaining consistent to that policy in order to play an outsized role in defining the agenda of the meeting. Others attempted to enter the simulation with a more open posture and then would react to new flash points, read the room, and continually gauge the preferences of the president in order to develop policies that matched his or her preferences. Most students seemed to see the importance of joining the president in private “executive committee” meetings, as they were able to wield greater influence over critical inner circle discussions. For example, one student wrote, “I attempted to be in the EXCOM room as much as I could on the first day in order to find a compromise between my position and the President’s disposition.” The specificity and variation of the strategies articulated by students suggests that many participants thought deliberately about the decision-making process itself and were highly intentional in how they approached the scenario and conducted themselves in this simulated social setting.

For the two full-semester courses, I included a survey question that asked whether respondents would “recommend that simulations be used in future Political Science course offerings.” Students strongly recommended the utilization of simulations—the mean response was 4.75 (a value of 5 indicated the strongest level of agreement). In standard student course evaluations for Politics of Asia, a majority of student (five of nine respondents) specifically identified simulations when asked in an open-ended question to describe aspects of the course that “challenge[d] you or stimulate[d] you to think deeply on the subject.” These responses suggest that, consistent with much existing research (Newmann and Twigg 2000; Lanetha and LaTronica-Herb 2013; Powner and Allendoerfer 2008), simulations can play an important role in increasing student engagement and interest in the classroom.


My experience of running Model Diplomacy simulations in three different courses suggests that this program provides a strong opportunity for students to participate with deeper and more critical engagement with class content. Instead of learning class concepts through traditional methods such as lectures, readings, class discussions, or oral presentations, students in simulations actively take on the roles of practitioners, embracing the power and responsibilities associated with their roles, and apply their own skills of persuasion and understanding of course content to collaboratively resolve a complicated, changing, and ill-defined puzzle with no clear resolution. Interestingly, in post-simulation debriefs, students used emotive words such as “frustrating,” “stressful,” and “exciting” to describe their experiences with the process. Students who have played the role of president have described the weight of responsibility they felt during the simulation, suggesting that the experience has given them a greater understanding of how difficult holding the office must be. These findings, combined with the results of student surveys, suggest that such simulations encourage active learning, critical thinking, awareness of alternative perspectives, and the development of the skills of persuasion needed to navigate the real-world challenges of group-decision making. Of particular interest to Asian studies courses, students receive enhanced motivation to study content areas and cases from areas of the world where they may have limited background or experience. In the semesters after simulations have been held, I have often been approached by former students who are interested in discussing more recent developments in topics addressed in the simulations, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis and island disputes between China and its neighbors. This suggests that engaging in elaborate, immersive role-plays might cultivate a more lasting interest in particular subject areas.

One limitation of Model Diplomacy is its general focus on content relevant to the fields of political science and international relations. The cases available, however, are ever expanding, and some recent additions have applications in economics, history, and public health. Additionally, Model Diplomacy always replicates decision-making in the US National Security Council. While students and instructors benefit from the simplicity of utilizing a common decision-making unit across many cases (reducing the amount of time required for setting up new and different simulation structures), Model Diplomacy does not provide opportunities for students to experience decision-making from the perspective of other influential political bodies or non-US elites. There are some notable methods available for addressing this limitation. Model Diplomacy contains materials that allow for simulations to be adapted to the UN Security Council. Additionally, alternative simulation-based curricula, such as Reacting to the Past and the International Communication & Negotiation Simulations Project (ICONS), contain extensive libraries of games and simulations that address a range of issue areas, disciplines, and regions of the world. As in Model Diplomacy, Asian studies is well-represented in Reacting to the Past and ICONS, allowing instructors to selectively adopt simulations that match their particular content areas and desired learning outcomes.


  1. As noted by Sternberg (1998) the developing expertise model suggests that learners do not have a relatively fixed capacity for achievement that is influenced by inherited traits that interact with their environment. Rather, learners are continually in a process of developing expertise and when driven by motivation, they acquire “metacognitive skills, which in turn activate learning and thinking skills” (17). [^]
  2. The fifth question, “I would recommend that simulations be used in future Political Science course offerings,” was added for the second and third courses, Politics of Asia and Political Development. [^]

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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