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USMMA: Teaching with Simulation in the Maritime Field

October 12, 2020

  • Photo: USMMA
The Author: Capt. James R. Zatwarnicki Jr., Assistant Professor of Nautical Science, USMMA.
  • Photo: USMMA Photo: USMMA
The Author: Capt. James R. Zatwarnicki Jr., Assistant Professor of Nautical Science, USMMA. The Author: Capt. James R. Zatwarnicki Jr., Assistant Professor of Nautical Science, USMMA.

A great deal of research related to student learning styles has emerged in recent years.  Through that research strong arguments have been made that more kinesthetic learning methods, such as hands-on or experiential learning, are more effective than more traditional methods like the lecture. In the maritime field, technology such as simulation, has provided us with tools to harness the power of experiential learning; however, those tools alone cannot ensure students are learning effectively.

Studies by the National Training Laboratory have found methods such as lecturing and reading result in only 5%-10% of knowledge retention; whereas, immersive learning can yield knowledge retention rates of 75% or better.  These beliefs have become even more deeply rooted given wide variety of tools that technology has afforded the classroom.  Many professional disciplines, including the medical, airline, and maritime fields, have adopted technologies like simulation for this reason.  Simulation provides an immersive learning environment that can place students in virtual real-life experiences.  It is a popular belief that this greatly improves knowledge retention, and makes the learning experience more enjoyable and engaging.  

Despite such beliefs there has been contradictory evidence to the relative effectiveness of different learning styles.  Some studies have found that, although a student might “prefer”’ a particular type of learning method over another, it does not necessarily mean that any one is a more effective than another.  One study conducted at Indiana University with 400 students found that, although students had “preferred” learning styles which included visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic (or VARK) there wasn’t a significant difference in outcomes for any particular style or combination of styles.  Moreover, almost 70% of the students in the study chose not to use their reported preferred learning style when given the option and those that did utilize their preferred learning style did not show better outcomes.  Therefore, it is imperative to recognize that simulation is a tool in the learning process that must be supported by other teaching techniques in order to be effective and is not just a better learning method.  A comprehensive course design that utilizes multiple learning methods in combination with technology should best prepare students to achieve desired outcomes.

Before we enter into any learning environment we must first have an understanding of our learning outcomes and objectives, though.  Learning outcomes define what the student should know or be able to do at the end of the course.  Because of this, outcomes must be specific and measurable in order to determine whether or not learning has been successful.  Objectives, on the other hand, are more aspirational and define what we intend to do when we set out at the beginning of a course.  For example, an outcome for a Bridge Resource Management course might be to “demonstrate proper implementation of the rules of the road”; whereas the objective might be to “encounter vessels with risk of collision while standing a watch”.  Together, learning outcomes and objectives give both the instructor and student a clear indication of why they are engaging in learning and what the student can expect to be able to do at the end of that learning.

In my professional career as a mariner, I often said that the best time I ever spent in any class was in a simulator.  That is a broad statement, though, as not all simulation courses have the same objectives.  Objectives in a Bridge Resource Management course might be to “develop teamwork, improve the cognitive function of the watch officer, and develop skills for managing stress on the bridge”; whereas, the objective for a Shiphandling course might be to “execute proper anchoring techniques, develop an understanding of bank effect and interaction with other vessels, or demonstrate the proper use of azipod propulsion”.  Although the objectives are different for each of these courses, they use a common technological component and could have a similar course structure supported by that technology.  The benefit of simulation as a technique in each of these courses is the ability to place the student in specific scenarios that mimic real life situations and allow them to actually apply learned skills to achieve a desired result.  This is one of the reasons I found simulation to be such a valuable experience in my professional learning: it offered validation and reinforcement to what I had already learned.  Consequently, just as simulation can effectively reinforce the skills we need to be competent professionals, it can also reinforce bad habits or improper skills.  As the saying goes, practice can make perfect, but imperfect practice will lead to imperfect performance.  

This is why course outcomes and objectives must be supported by sound course design, reliable content, and competent instructors; not simply be dependent upon the simulation technology.    Before simulation can be incorporated as a tool in a course, one of the first things that must be considered is the student’s level of experience and understanding of the course material.  For example, if the student is a novice and the desired outcome is to demonstrate proper techniques as a helmsman, the outcome would align to their skill level; however, they might not have the knowledge or skills to perform tasks in a more advanced course like Bridge Resource Management (maneuvering in accordance with COLREGS).  In the same respect, a junior officer like a Third Mate could not be expected to have the same level of skills or knowledge that a seasoned ship’s Master would.  In order to ensure that the student has the required knowledge or skills that they need to effectively perform the simulation there will have to be some level of instruction prior to engaging in the simulation.  For a shiphandling course, this instruction may be new information presented as part of the course itself; whereas for a course like Bridge Resource Management, which ties together multiple skillsets like navigation and collision avoidance, the skills may have been learned in prior courses in the student’s career.

Regardless of when the skills being performed in the simulation are learned, the student must also have a clear understanding of exactly what skills they are going to be expected to apply and what objectives they are expected to pursue before going into the simulation.  For this reason, a pre-brief is a very important component of any simulation.  This is where the instructor sits and discusses with the students what they are going to be doing in the simulation and what is expected of them before they enter the simulator.  The pre-brief need not take very long, but by setting this foundation, we answer the question of “why are we here?” and put the student in the right frame of mind to focus on the objectives that they are trying to achieve through the exercise.

Once there is a clear understanding of the learning objectives and it is established that the student possesses the requisite skills and knowledge to achieve the desired outcomes, we can proceed with the actual simulation.  There are two integral parts to the simulation: the simulation exercise and the physical simulator itself.  Although the simulator itself is usually the most prominent and impressive part of a course, even the most advanced, expensive simulator would not be effective without well-designed simulation exercises.  For this reason, even very basic computer-based simulators can be powerful tools when used with well-designed simulation exercises.  The simulation exercises themselves are the key to effectively achieving the course objectives and assessing the learning outcomes.  That is not to say, however that the simulation equipment is not an important component of the overall course design.  

One of the most important roles the simulator itself plays, particularly in a course such as Bridge Resource Management, is to lend a degree of realism to the simulation exercise.  Simulators range from full mission simulators to multi-task, part task, or special purpose simulators; each provides a certain level of realism, and each has its place in different types of learning.  The degree of realism required in a simulation is dependent upon the overall course learning objectives, though.  For example, for a Radar Observer course, a full mission bridge simulator would be more complex than required to achieve the course learning outcome.  Likewise, for a Bridge Resource Management course, a part task simulator might not provide the necessary level of complexity to achieve the various objectives or required level of realism to keep students engaged.  Regardless of the type of simulation equipment used, well designed exercises are imperative for students to be successful, recognize the value in what they are learning, and can compensate for any shortfalls in the technology itself.

At the conclusion of the simulation it is critical to conduct a debrief.  The debrief is one of the most important parts of the simulation and should be given the same amount of time as the simulation exercise itself.  The pre-brief and debrief together act as book ends to the simulation exercise but, where the pre-brief is often instructor driven, it is important for the debrief to be an active discussion that engages the students.  The debrief provides the opportunity to review how the student performed in the simulation exercise as it relates to the pre-defined objectives.  It is always best to engage the students by having them talk through areas where they might have fallen short of the desired performance in the exercise rather than simply telling them what they did wrong.  This helps them have a better understanding and appreciation for what they did and how they might improve future performance.  It is also just as important to reiterate the aspects they performed well in the exercise.  This helps to build confidence in the student and encourage them to continue to refine their skills and knowledge.

The students’ performance and level of proficiency in meeting the objectives of the exercise will directly relate to whether or not they met the required overall learning outcomes; this is determined through an assessment process.  Conducting an assessment and determining the students’ performance could be very subjective in some simulation based courses and in many cases reflective of the instructor’s own experience and beliefs, though.  Having clearly defined outcomes can go a long way to reducing this subjectivity, as would utilizing a specific, unambiguous, assessment criteria or well-designed rubrics.  Inevitably, there will always be room for an instructor to critique aspects of the student’s performance outside of the specific predefined outcomes, but assessment must strive to limit itself to the specific predetermined outcomes to be effective.

Although it cannot be conclusively proven that one learning style is fundamentally superior to another, it goes without saying that there are many benefits to experiential learning like simulation.  A course that effectively uses simulation as a teaching technique very often includes more than one learning style to meet learning objectives and outcomes.  For the course to be effective, simulation exercises need to be designed around those objectives and outcomes, as does the overall assessment process.  By taking the approach of seeing simulation not as a stand-alone experiential based teaching technique, but rather incorporating it as a one of multiple teaching techniques in the overall course design, the instructor can utilize the best aspects of each technique to complement each other and better recognize the desired learning outcomes.


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