Fidelity of Simulations

Cory Robertson

What are Simulations?

Simulations are dynamic methods for showing change in models over a set period of time (Department of Defense, 2005). Examples of simulations include:

  • Interacting with a weather map to explore changes in weather over the course of a week;

Copyright WSI, 2011

  • Adjusting the measurements on a bridge and simulating traffic in order to determine strength and buoyancy;

Copyright EduWeb, 2008

  • Operating a virtual lemonade stand to grasp the basics of supply and demand.

Copyright EA Games, 2010

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What are the Differences Between Simulations and Models?

Simulations are not the exploration of static models (Department of Defense, 2005). An interactive software that allows the learner to explore the human body is not an example of a simulation. An interactive software that allows the learner to affect the environment, e.g. increase cholesterol levels in arteries, put pressure on bones, or manipulate the degenerative process of enamel in teeth would be considered a simulation, as it allows the learner to see the effects of actions on the models.


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What is Fidelity? Why is it Important?

Fidelity is most often referred to as the degree to which a simulation matches the rigor found in its real-life analog (MYNAH Technologies, 2007). The fidelity of a simulation has ranges, and is typically labeled as Low, Medium, or High in rigorousness. The different levels of fidelity in a simulation may not be due to an oversight, but as a direct result of the target user and their ability to interact with the simulation. Additionally, the amount of fidelity in a simulation may also be determined by the perceived need of the learner to translate what they've learned directly into the simulated field (Gerathewohl, 1969).

It is important to consider fidelity when creating simulations, as different users have different prior knowledge that they bring to the program. Additionally, users may have different expectations for output or gain from the simulation. When deciding on the fidelity level of a simulation, the programmers must consider who the simulation is targeted towards, and what the market (demand) is for that level of simulation (National Training and Simulation Association, 2011).

In the case of Lemonade Tycoon -- a multi-platform simulation game that puts the user in the role of an owner and operator of a lemonade stand -- the program offers Low Fidelity in that the user is responsible only for 3 aspects of running the business: resources (ice, water, lemons, sugar), real estate (size and appearance of lemonade stand), and simple budgeting (either pocket profits, or invest in business). The user is not asked to manage taxes, go through permit and leasing processes, hire and manage employees, or secure and pay-off loans; all of which are standard components of running a business.

Copyright EA Games, 2010
Copyright EA Games, 2010

However, it is acceptable for this program to have Low Fidelity, as the purpose is not to train the user on how to translate what has been learned directly into the field (Medium/High Fidelity), but to give the user an introductory level experience in how to run a business, and manage the limited, yet main aspects of a business: supply, demand, and growth. The fact that Lemonade Tycoon is a Low Fidelity simulation is not a result of poor programming or faulty execution, it is a result of knowing the targeted end users, which are non-professionals aged six and up.

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How Can Simulations Be Used for Student Learning?

To understand how simulations can be used for student learning, it must first be established what it is students are to learn. The goal of educating students is to instill in them a deep learning which allows students to take what they've learned, in an educational setting, and apply it to career and life situations (How can learning, 2010). While there are many strategies and learning activities that can promote deep understanding of content, few are applied at the industrial level as frequently as simulations (Pedagogy in action, 2010).

That is not to say that simulations should be used alone, or to replace current best practices. Gardner, Simons and Simons (1992) conducted a study in which science students were split into three different groups that took part in three different learning models: 1) hands-on experiments, 2) hands-on experiments with computer simulations as support, and 3) textbook only. The groups that took part in hands-on experiments scored higher on unit tests than the group that was limited to textbook study only (Gardner, Simons & Simons, 1992). Additionally, Gardner (1992), Simons and Simons found that the group that had the added support of computer simulations out-performed the group that was limited to only hands-on experiments. This study demonstrates that -- like most instances in education -- a multi-faceted approach will often times yield the best results. In this case, simulations offered yet another avenue to access the content being taught, and provided the students with more opportunities to interact with material.

Again, the use of simulations alone will not provide improved results. Not only should simulations be used in conjunction with other, more traditional practices (Gardner, Simons & Simons, 1992), but should also be followed by intense reflection and evaluation of the material with which the student just finished interacting (Clements & Sarama, 2003). Clements and Sarama (2003) stated that the past model from John Dewey of learning by doing is no longer enough, and that children will only develop a deeper knowledge of the content they were exposed to during the simulation when given the opportunity to reflect on the experiences of their learning. Additionally, Clements and Sarama (2003) further supported Gardner, Simons and Simons' (1992) findings by stating that while a real-life, in-nature example of the unit of study may be readily available for the student to experience, a simulation may be a more appropriate outlet for study, as the student is able to manipulate variables and environments over which they do not have control in the real-life environment.

It is for these reasons that simulations should be used in the classroom to supplement current teaching practices, resources, and strategies. Simulations can offer a higher degree of environmental control (Clements & Sarama, 2003), provide students with more opportunities to interact with the content (Gardner, Simons & Simons, 1992), and allow for students to develop a deeper and more career-aligned understanding of the content they are learning (Pedagogy in action, 2010).

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Examples of Simulations:

As previously mentioned, simulations can be used in a variety of ways. They can be used for students to explore business models, interact with the physics behind bridge construction, or tweak the variables that lead to different weather conditions. Simulations can also be used in non-core content areas.

Social Simulator

Certec, a division of the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University of Sweden, created a simulation that allows the user to explore social situations in the role of someone with autism. Users are given
the opportunity to explore social interactions as if they were a person with autism. They're given choices of responses, and each response provides the user with feedback on the likelihood of a autistic person to actually make that choice, along with information on how to make different choices. The simulation, while exploratory in nature, also serves the purpose of allowing a non-autistic user to increase their ability to interact with and understand people they may meet with autism. This simulation has medium fidelity, as the majority of the material can transfer to real-life interactions, but the actual user interface does not reflect real environments.

Job Interview Simulator

The Polytechnic University in Hong Kong developed an interview simulator to help applicants prepare for possible interviews. Users select their gender, enter their name, and begin the simulation. They begin from being greeted by the secretary -- and given choices on how to respond (warning: don't mix your verb tenses!) -- all the way through the interview, and days beyond (don't choose to call daily). The simulation is a great tool for students (6-12) to use as preparation for any type of interview they may soon be taking part in, whether it be for college or a job. Each choice, either correct or incorrect, is immediately followed by feedback:
Copyright Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, 2010

The simulation doesn't simply track and respond to whether or not the last question was answered correctly (there are at least four possible responses for each question), but also detects a pattern in the user's responses, and provides feedback to the user as to how real-life interviewees would likely be feeling about their current status in the interview. As seen in the screenshot above, simply responding with the most overly-polite choice available does not guarantee a successful interview. This simulation has high fidelity, in that its NPC (non-playable characters, the interviewers) have permanence in relation to the user's responses, and it tracks the entire process of interviewing, not simply a choose-your-own-adventure style list of questions and answers.

No Tech Simulator

While all of the simulations previously mentioned require computer hardware and software (or Internet connection), simulations don't need to be on a computer in order to have fidelity. (a site owned and operated by the New York Life) created an in-person simulation to use in a classroom allowing students to simulate the slave trade, title Molasses to Rum to Slavery. The simulation is done in the classroom, with real supplies: different sugars, hard candy, empty bottle of rum extract (cooking variety), fake money. Students are then given roles to play within the parameters set by the instructor. They are then free to explore the different variables that arise when taking part in the Atlantic slave trade triangle. While it would appear that this simulation has low fidelity as a result of being non-technical, and asking students to roleplay, it actually would be considered medium to high in fidelity, in that it has students interacting with real products of the simulated experience, as well as the fact that role responses (as a slave, slave trader, or sugar trader) are non-scripted, and non-formulaic. Rather than relying on the programmer of the software to consider all possible choices, and then code responses into the system, this simulation allows for freedom of responses and true, improvised interactions.

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- maintains a great list of math, science, and social science simulations.
- The Connected Classroom aggregates a list of simulations across all curricula.
- Edutopia provides a brief, but dense look at how classroom simulations work.
- Simulations aren't just for students. A video overview of a classroom simulation to assist teachers and administrators

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Clements, D.H. & Sarama, J. (2003). Strip Mining for Gold: Research and Policy in Educational Technology—A Response to “Fool’s Gold”. AACE Journal, 11(1), 7-69. Norfolk, VA: AACE.

Department of Defense, Modeling and Simulation Coordinating Office. (2005). Essentials of modeling and simulation Washington, DC: Retrieved from

Gardner, C. M., Simmons, P. E., & Simmons, R. D. (1992). The effects of CAI and hands-on activities on elementary students’ attitudes and weather knowledge. School Science and Mathematics, 92, 334-336.

Gerathewohl, S. (1969). Fidelity of simulation and transfer of training: a review of the problem. Springfield, VA. Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information.

How can learning and teaching theory assist engineering academics?. (2010). Informally published manuscript, Loughborough University, Engineering Subject Centre, Loughborough, United Kingdom. Retrieved from

MYNAH Technologies. (2007, January 19). Understanding simulation fidelity: what is it and how much do i need?. Retrieved from

National Training and Simulation Association, The Technical Cooperation Program. (2011). Simulation evaluation Arlington, VA: Retrieved from

Pedagogy in action. (2010). Informally published manuscript, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. Retrieved from

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