Using Simulations to Promote Active Learning About Local, State, and National Government

Political Science Educator: volume 25, issue 2


Kayla C. Isenbletter, Indiana University South Bend, David J. Hurley, Indiana University South Bend, and Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

Simulations can be among the most helpful active learning activities to enhance the teaching of political science. In our review of civic engagement literature published in PS: Political Science & Politics for the decade from 2010 to 2020, we found several innovative uses of simulations to enhance civic knowledge, skills, and engagement at the local, state, and national levels (Hurley, Isenbletter, & Bennion, 2021). Below, we outline three simulations with particularly useful ideas for encouraging civic knowledge. Our goal is to provide readers with models they can adopt and adapt for their own classes.

The pedagogical benefits of active learning strategies, such as service learning and simulations, are well-documented. Shannon Jenkins (2010) pairs both strategies in a single course to leverage those benefits more fully. Her course focuses on state-level politics and sought to address her observation of common student criticisms that state government poses an obstacle to solving problems, and that state legislative leaders do not care about persistent issues faced by constituents. Her goal for the course is to help students understand the complexity of devising public policy remedies and the challenges faced in addressing competing demands on limited government resources. The simulation mimics the state legislative process for creating and passing bills.

The service learning component involves 15 hours of experience in public service organizations intended to inform students on issues they might seek to address through the legislative simulation. These experiences are intended to help students develop a close-up perspective and in-depth knowledge about a particular set of issues so they can develop an informed and impassioned perspective on legislative issues related to their placement. At the end of the semester, a two-week legislative simulation engages students in the law-making process; students shepherd bills, grounded in their service experience, through the legislative process to pass them into law. This includes representing their particular bills to committees in which they engage in detailed debate over the merits of the legislation, whether to merge or amend bills, and ultimately whether to vote to pass certain bills out of committee to the broader assembly. The service-learning experience ostensibly provides students with “special expertise in understanding certain problems in the state, much like the expertise that comes from legislators’ committee assignments” (p. 542).

By simulating the state level legislative process, students directly experience the frustrations inherent in addressing issues through legislation, such as working with others who do not share their interest or comprehend the perceptions derived from their direct experience with a specific issue. Sharing the legislative agenda with others who have different priorities deepens student appreciation for the varying priorities of state legislatures and the difficulty of navigating the legislative process. The simulation cultivates civic knowledge in other ways, such as requiring students to select a state senate district to represent and to learn about that district and understand the constituents represented. In addition to submitting a report about their district, students are required to submit at least four bills to the legislature, which may include issues of concern to their constituents rather than deriving solely from their service learning experiences. Students are also required to organize party caucuses and select party leaders.

Janna Deitz and Keith Boeckleman (2021) tap into higher profile national campaigns to enhance students’ civic knowledge and promote civic engagement. This article describes how they track student participation in the 2008 presidential election after engaging the students in a mock presidential election a year earlier, using a control group of non-participants to measure the simulation’s impact on “relevant measures of civic engagement, including political information, efficacy, and interest in politics” (p. 743). The Mock Presidential Election (MPE) was a large- scale simulation (n>1000) conducted over five days in the fall of 2007 at Western Illinois University. The timing allowed for a one-year follow-up survey to assess its impact on actual student participation in the presidential election of 2008. Many participants were drawn from the university’s First Year Experience (FYE) general studies program, so this longitudinal study has the benefit of involving students from diverse disciplines rather than introducing self- selection bias by sorting students according to a pre-established interest in political science.

Like Jenkins, the authors design the simulations to help increase student empathy for challenges faced by elected officials and overcome misconceptions around issues such as the difficulty in building political consensus around policy. Students are assigned states and parties before embarking on a comprehensive simulation, which includes one day dedicated to state primary/caucuses and three days for party conventions including development of platforms, nomination of candidates, and third-party conventions. The final night of the simulation represents the national campaign with students casting their ballots.1

The exit interview gathers basic demographic information on the students as well as measures of satisfaction, interest, and information gained as a result of the simulation. The one-year follow-up survey is conducted with students across campus—both participants and non-participants in the simulation—to assess “self-reported measures of knowledge, civic engagement, interest in politics/public affairs, and political efficacy” (p. 746). Surveys found statistically significant differences between participants and non-participants in the MPE on measures of both political knowledge, political interest and civic engagement. Significantly, the one-year follow-up survey helps to demonstrate the civic efficacy of the simulation by illustrating an actual impact on participation in campaigns and election-related activities that persist a year after the simulation.

The high-profile nature of a national election can engage many students in the political process, but simulations can also be used to catalyze student engagement in local political issues as is demonstrated by Sara R. Rinfret (2012). This simulation closely mirrors the actual local community with students assuming various roles of real people, such as playing specific alderpersons or representing actual business organizations or neighborhood associations within a community. The instructor provides hypothetical scenarios the students can select to work through, but allows students the option to create their own scenario which may mirror actual issues being debated by the local councils. Getting to know the specific individuals or associations they will represent in the simulation, which is part of the research required in preparation for the culminating simulation, provides a real way for students to experience how community actors participate in local governance. Another part of the preparation process requires students to attend and reflect on an actual city council meeting. Even though the course is centered around a simulated council hearing, the people the students represent during the simulation are real; preparation entails getting to know real city leaders and attending actual community meetings as part of their research. In this way, such a simulation brings the local impact of civic knowledge and skills into clear focus for students, many of whom may have previously been focused on the higher profile character of national political issues.

Taken together, these articles provide tangible models for ways that simulations can be applied to civics on local, state, and national levels. Another helpful resource for instructors wishing to incorporate simulations in the classroom can be found in the bibliography “Super Simulations: Trailblazing Ideas for Your Courses,” compiled by Elizabeth Bennion and Xander Laughlin in this newsletter in 2015. The bibliography catalogues over 50 articles from the Journal of Political Science Education that describe various simulations and organizes them by sub-disciplines including research methods, political theory, comparative politics, international relations, and American politics. Simulations are a powerful way to give students hands-on, experiential learning that develops their understanding of the policy making process, including the competing pressures that policymakers face when passing legislation. Grounding the simulations in personal interactions between students, political decision makers, and the people who are most directly affected by specific policies, enriches students’ understanding of the importance of public policy and political engagement.


1It is unclear from the article whether students cast their ballots based on their own preferences after taking part in a debate about the virtues of the candidates running for each party’s nomination, or whether they cast votes based on their assigned party and state affiliations.


Deitz, J. L., & Boeckelman, K. (2012). Simulating 2008: A Mock Presidential Election’s Impact on Civic Engagement. PS: Political Science & Politics, 45(4), 743-747. doi:10.1017/S1049096512000716.

Hurley, D., Isenbletter, K., & Bennion, E.A. (2021). Civic Engagement Scholarship: What We Can Learn from the Research [Conference presentation]. APSA 2021 Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, United States.

Jenkins, S. (2010). Service learning and simulations. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43(3), 541- 545. doi:10.1017/S1049096510000788.

Rinfret, S. R. (2012). Simulating city councils: Increasing student awareness and involvement.

PS: Political Science & Politics, 45(3), 513-515. doi:10.1017/S104909651200039X

Bennion, Elizabeth A. and Xander E. Laughlin. (2015). Super Simulations: Trailblazing Ideas for Your Courses. The Political Science Educator 19 (2): 9-12 [accessed December 5, 2021 at].

Kayla C. Isenbletter, David J. Hurley, and Elizabeth A. Bennion, are guest contributors to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.

Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)


APSA Educate has republished The Political Science Educator since 2021. Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to

Educate’s Political Science Educator digital collection.


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