A young woman with blonde hair participates in a teaching simulation exercise

Simulator Provides Students Fail-Safe Opportunities to Teach, Lead, Mentor

The computer-based simulator provides hours of meaningful practice for UVA students training for a variety of professions in education and human development.

Audrey Breen

Whether you are a World Cup loyalist or merely a fan of the hit show “Ted Lasso,” it is easy to imagine soccer players repeatedly practicing the same kick from the same place over and over, while a coach offers thoughts on how to improve. That kind of practice, paired with immediate feedback, is a powerful formula.

For students of the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, who will spend their careers mentoring youth, engaging with students and families as a teacher, or engaging with caregivers and teachers as a principal, repeatedly practicing a lesson or a conversation with people in a real-life setting isn’t realistic.

But it is possible to practice those very things when using a computer-based simulator, complete with child and adult avatars brought to life by actors in real time.

According to the website of the manufacturer, Mursion, the simulator “relies on a talented, trained, certified, and diverse team of Simulation Specialists from around the globe – many of them are professional actors – to deliver its simulations.”

What began as a pilot program with the company in 2016 to offer additional classroom management training for pre-service teachers has expanded into a schoolwide effort providing hours of meaningful practice for UVA students training for a variety of professions in education and human development.

Katherine Leigh, director of simulation innovations and applications, oversees the vision, implementation and continuous improvement of these simulation efforts through the School of Education and Human Development’s Simulation Lab.

"The Simulation Lab continues to expand, supporting more than 20 courses, three research studies, and 550 students this school year,” Leigh said. “In total, we ran more than 2,000 simulations during the past 10 months. Instructors and students regularly share their appreciation for low-risk practice in environments that do the least harm to real students, families and colleagues.”

Preparing Education Leaders

The school’s Administration and Supervision program, where students are studying to become leaders in schools and districts as teacher leaders, principals and superintendents, began to emphasize virtual practicums in 2020.

“The Mursion simulator provides students a fail-safe chance to practice communicating as the leader in difficult situations,” Sara Dexter, associate professor and the program coordinator, said. “And connecting the virtual exercises through debriefing with course materials is critical for students’ success.”

For example, after reading a book that highlights the value of trust in educational leadership, students encounter an avatar named “Mr. William Emler.” Mr. Emler is very upset about his daughter encountering a safe sex curriculum in her middle school class. UVA students, as future educators, must establish a respectful conversation with Mr. Emler and offer policy-aligned options for his daughter.

As planned in the simulation, Mr. Emler cannot be satisfied and storms out of the meeting.

During debriefing, students grapple with the implications of the exchange. They do the same on a host of other controversial topics. They draw upon course content to frame future encounters.

The Administration and Supervision program uses simulations to practice discussions on topics such as social media, cyberbullying, budget crises and human resources staffing.

“Simulations allow an instructor to count on all students getting a similar practice opportunity," Dexter said. “This is impossible to do if the chances for applications occur in-person in various sites where students work and get field experiences. The course instructor, for example, cannot fabricate the experience or be there to witness it.

“With these planned experiences, instructors can ‘peek into’ the students’ thinking. This allows instructors to provide feedback to students on their performances.”

Reading Assessment

One common assessment used in elementary schools is testing a student’s ability to read out loud, and understand what was read, by having the student answer questions about the passage. To prepare teacher candidates for this type of assessment, associate professor Latisha Hayes provides students with multiple approximations of practice, including the simulator.

UVA students are paired with an elementary student avatar to administer the passage that gauges fluency. The future educators ask questions to assess comprehension, then compile data to determine instructional priorities. This information is combined with other assessment data to complete a case study. Hayes helps the UVA students to examine the data across an entire hypothetical class, simulating the process teachers go through.

“One common difficulty teacher educators face is having the opportunities for practice that match our topics in methods classes,” Hayes said. “For example, one simulation that teacher candidates complete in my course is a lesson one might see in a second- or third-grade classroom. Students might miss an opportunity to practice that lesson if they are placed in earlier or later grades for their field experiences.

“Having the opportunity to plan for, practice and debrief a variety of lesson topics across elementary grades is definitely a plus.”

Family Engagement

Family engagement is an important part of education as families and teachers work together to support students' learning.

“We want our teachers to proactively build relationships with students' families in order to share valuable insight and strategies that will support students' needs,” Anna Yonas, a doctoral student in social studies education, said.

In this simulation, pre-service teachers read about Michelle, a hypothetical student who is struggling to engage with her peers and participate in class. UVA students then set goals for a family conference with her parent, Max Mullen. With those goals set, students observe simulations, participate in them, and then offer peer feedback to their fellow students.

“Too often, building school-family partnerships is a skill learned on the job when teachers are working with real students and families,” Yonas said. “This practice allows our students to learn how to develop these relationships in a low-stakes setting by engaging in the simulation and receiving feedback.

“Additionally, students observe their classmates, allowing for a rich discourse about the many ways one could frame a conversation with the same parent and student. The mixed-reality simulator with a hypothetical student and family allows our students to make mistakes, and learn from them, before their first conferences with real students' families.”

Mentoring Youth

In fall 2020, assistant professor Melissa Levy began using the simulator in the course accompanying college students’ first semester as mentors in the Young Women Leaders Program. The research-based mentoring program pairs UVA undergraduates with area middle school girls.

During the current semester, Levy, along with Leigh and doctoral student David-Aaron Roth, created two simulations to give students taking the Foundations of Community Engagement course an opportunity to practice engaging with youth. The simulations give students more realistic practice than the traditional exercise of having the college students role-play with each other.

“While role playing with peers can and does give students an opportunity to practice skills, there are limits to how ‘real’ peers are in their role playing,” Levy said. “With the simulator, we can have the avatar/actor respond in more authentic ways, helping our students see how their engagement volleys may be received and how they might modify them.”

Because the simulation sessions are recorded, students also have the assignment of watching their recording and reflecting on the experience. What worked well? How could you tell? What would you want to do differently, if given the opportunity? How could you use what you learned here in the future?

Simulation Research

According to Julie Cohen, associate professor of education and simulation researcher, it is very challenging to track pre-service teacher development. Her research on the use of the simulator in training future teachers focuses on how best to identify clear ways pre-service teachers can improve, and how best to relay that information in a way that leads to meaningful improvement.

Traditionally, teacher trainers observe pre-service teachers in K-12 classrooms to assess their skills and provide corresponding support. But, as Cohen noted, there are often many variables within those live settings that can affect the pre-service teacher’s experience.

“The problem with this observation model is when we observe, we are also picking up things about the mentor teacher, the students in the room, the curriculum a pre-service teacher is using, and so on,” Cohen said. “It is very hard – I would argue impossible – to just focus on the pre-service teacher, their skills and what they need to get better.”

That is where the simulator comes in. The simulations provide a standardized platform that allows faculty to focus solely on the pre-service teacher. For Cohen, this kind of window into emerging skill development is absolutely critical.

“We cannot help pre-service teachers get better if we don’t have a clear sense of what they can already do,” Cohen said. “Our research has demonstrated that we can get reliable insights about these students’ skills in the simulations, and that these insights are often different from those gleaned from classroom observations.” 

According to Cohen’s research, this suggests that using both methods together – classroom exposure and classroom simulations – could improve the capacity for diagnosing and addressing pre-service teachers’ needs.

A second challenge to tackle is when and how to offer feedback. In every study Cohen and her colleagues have conducted, they have found that pre-service teachers benefit enormously from targeted coaching immediately after trying out a teaching scenario.

“That kind of immediate feedback is also impossible in real classrooms, where our students have to wait until the end of the school day – or even week in many cases – to get feedback from mentors,” Cohen said. “When people are learning new and hard things – and few things are as hard as teaching well – immediate feedback is critical. The idea that practice alone ‘makes perfect’ has been dispelled across our studies. Pre-service teachers really need the coaching to improve.”

Simulation Lab

In 2016, the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development began a partnership with Mursion to utilize their mixed-reality simulation program that takes the form of virtual school spaces with student and adult avatars. The simulator is used to prepare students for work in K-12 settings and provides a unique opportunity for researchers to measure its effectiveness and impact.