The effect of prior exploration as an instructional strategy in system dynamics learning environments
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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- Department of Geography 
In complex simulation-based learning environments, participants’ learning and performance may suffer due to demands on their cognitive processing, their struggle to develop adequate mental models, failure to transfer what is learned to subsequent learning or activities, and fear of failure. This study investigates an instructional strategy addressing those four problems, which we call prior exploration strategy. It was implemented in a simulation requiring participants to optimize a developing nation’s per capita income. The prior exploration strategy allows participants to manipulate and see the results of a simulation model in practice mode before they manage a similar simulation in a more final mode. The strategy was assessed in an experiment comparing participants using the prior exploration strategy with participants studying equivalent content in a non-exploratory fashion. The dependent variables were performance within the simulation and improvement of participants’ understanding. The prior exploration strategy significantly improved participants’ performance, as measured by per capita income. It also significantly improved some aspects of the participants’ understanding (e.g., their understanding of the nation’s debt accumulation), but not others (e.g., their understanding of the need to balance the nation’s health, education, and infrastructure investments; those that appear to have complex interrelations).