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How Business Simulations Shape Complex Mental Models in Students

Findings from professors at Penn State University and the University of Massachusetts conclude that business simulations develop complex knowledge structures, known as mental models, in specific domains such as Marketing or Business strategy.

Synergistic knowledge

When a group integrates individual members’ perspectives, they are developing synergistic knowledge. In business simulations, individual members interpret tasks with their own knowledge structure, but teamwork is almost always required due to the complexity of the simulation. In this active learning process, participants develop a collective body of knowledge by playing upon the unique perspectives of each individual. Two factors seem to play a key role in developing this type of knowledge: Social Interaction and Team Psychological Safety.

Social interactions

Business simulations require students to understand, inform and persuade their teammates concerning various issues. As they communicate with their peers, they tend to develop a sophisticated understanding of the simulation and can construct strategies and tactics. Additionally, interacting with peers allows for a feedback process that helps participants understand their performance and actions, and decide on future actions. All of this comes together to play a positive role in knowledge development

Team psychological safety

When working together in a business simulation, group members must trust and respect each other in the decisions they make, creating a sense of safety within the group. This safety net enhances learning as individuals feel safe contributing and sharing ideas and strategies. Ultimately, this sense of psychological safety positively impacts the development of synergistic knowledge.

What instructors should know

Instructors should provide students with guidance of team-based business simulations so that individuals can feel safe in their team environment. Ideas include setting group norms that promote open idea exchanges and emphasizing group processes to ease interactions among students. Instructors should also monitor the groups throughout the simulation to make sure that the norms are being followed. It’s important to allocate class time to help students understand how to use constructive discussion. Finally, instructors should implement models to evaluate student learning in a specific domain so that they are aware of what they know and how to improve upon them.

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Source: Student Learning in Business Simulation An Empirical Investigation. Yang Xu, Penn State University (USA), Yi Yang, University of Massachusetts (USA)