Experiences, Simulations, and Games in the Classroom

by Beau Steenken

Photo by Dave Lawler. Used under CC BY-ND-NC 2.0.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had an interesting conversation with one of my aunts, who is now retired after a long and successful career in upper management of various retail corporations. We were talking about news reports of declining sales figures, and she was explaining that retailers should have had a better plan to deal with a shifting demographic, as a substantial amount of data has indicated that millennials (and possibly the generation following them) strongly prioritize experiences over tangibles. Her observations reminded me of things I’ve read about millennials’ learning styles. (See, e.g., Cindy Guyer, Experiential Learning: Context and Connections for Legal Research – A Case Study,  32 Legal Reference Services Q. 161 (2013).) Happily, I think many professors of legal research have already done a better job than retailers of catering to the characteristics of a new demographic.

It remains important, however, to continue to improve ways to deliver information in ways conducive to how our students process it. For the current era of law students, this means incorporating activities that provide for experiential learning. Furthermore, under its new standards, the ABA will actively require law schools to provide students with experiential learning opportunities. ABA Standard 303(a)(3) now requires law students to complete 6 hours of experiential coursework to receive an accredited J.D. In order to provide enough courses to allow students to meet the requirement, law schools may use clinics, externships, and “simulation courses,” which the ABA defines in Standard 304(a). The ABA’s requirements for a simulation course are functionally similar to those for law clinics with the key difference being that students in a clinical setting deal with real clients with real issues, while those in a simulation course represent fictional clients with fictional, yet realistic, problems. (Many LRW courses would probably satisfy the ABA’s simulation course guidelines but for the facts that the ABA interprets its curricular standards in a way to prevent students from using single courses to satisfy two requirements and that an LRW course is itself a requirement.)


Photo by Carsten Tolkmit. User under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Given that my childhood skewed more than a bit towards nerd, when I first read the ABA’s definition of a simulation course, I immediately thought of the role-playing games (RPG) that I, um, used to play. After all, we are asking students to assume a role and to pretend that they are a practicing lawyer, and we are then scoring them on their performance in that role, while also offering them some guidance and suggestions, much as a gamemaster would do with RPG players. (Note that legal education is not the only field that uses scored simulations as a teaching tool. For instance, armed forces often run simulations actively referred to as wargames. Not that I’m suggesting we add to law students’ stress by subjecting them to a legal equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru, though come to think of it, exposing them to situations in which clients are in very precarious legal positions may not be a bad thing for preparing students for future practice… but I digress.)

Beyond the value the ABA places on exposing students to practice-like settings, I think simulations, particularly game-like simulations, may be a really good fit for the instruction of law students, who already appear to be geared towards experiential learning. This holds particularly true when the topic of instruction is an activity like research.

There are three aspects of games/simulations that I think match really well to current law students and legal education. First, law school tends to draw competitive personalities, and games naturally appeal to competitive feelings. Every year in my 1L legal research course, I conduct my first semester sum-up as a quiz bowl, and the students love it. It’s amazing, but students who have been semi-tuned out all semester suddenly find they really enjoy terms and connectors. Second, games encourage activity, and therefore active engagement with material, leading to a higher level of learning. One of our criminal law professors introduced a game (which she adapted from a template offered by our university’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching) into her class this year and has told me that students understand abstract concepts much better after encountering them actively in the game. Finally, many games, particularly of the role-playing style similar to simulations, incorporate intermediary rewards before the game is finished. These rewards keep players invested and coming back to finish long games. The app DuoLingo has used this technique to great effect to keep users disciplined enough to make progress in learning a language. The same concepts could be used to keep students invested in a long simulation course or even informal instruction outside of the traditional classroom. I saw an intriguing poster presentation at ORALL a couple of years ago that showed how the librarians at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis were considering development of digital “badges” that could be awarded to students who demonstrated the research skills related to each individual badge, much like video game players receive digital achievement badges when completing certain actions in games.

In short, games appeal to the competitive nature of law students, induce them to actively engage with material and/or simulations, and have the potential to keep students hooked on a long-term simulation even after the novelty wears off. As such, I think they could be a great way to reach experiential learners like today’s law students, and I would like to explore incorporating some of their concepts further in my courses. Also, if anyone else has incorporated game/simulation elements into their instruction, I would love to hear how it has worked out!

This entry was posted in Legal Education Standards, Legal Research Instruction, practice ready, Teaching (general), Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Experiences, Simulations, and Games in the Classroom

  1. txmischief says:

    Wow. The legal research portion of the paralegal course I took in the mid-80s used real-life scenarios. As a career law firm trainer, I’m shocked to learn that it is not that way in law schools. I guess what what they say about assumptions holds.

    As a gamer and someone who has studied gamification, I worry that people focus on points, badges and leader boards, which can actually be demotivating. I think starting with experiential learning would be a good first step in the right direction. The bling can come later.

    • beausteenken says:

      Happily, I think most 1L LRW courses do use “real-life” (albeit fictional) simulation scenarios to teach Legal Research & Writing, though they cannot be used to satisfy the ABA’s new beefed-up simulation requirements as the ABA disallows “double dipping.” Still, the ABA clearly sees the need for increased numbers of simulation courses and experiential learning in the law curriculum, which I think mirrors your point about the disconnect between law schools and practice that sometimes exists.

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