By Deborah Stone, CPT, & Steven W. Villachica, CPT, PhD, 2011 Conference Presenters

Immersive learning simulations (ILSs) can be powerful and effective tools for helping knowledge workers build the knowledge and skills they need to make decisions and solve complex problems.

However, implementing an ILS can be challenging. Inconsistent nomenclature, the lack of commonly accepted, empirically derived standards, and hefty up-front implementation costs create a perfect storm of snake oil and hype.

Clearly, the cost of creating ILSs needs to be less than the performance gains they produce. HPT can help us cut through the hype and carefully deploy ILSs where, when, and how they will have the most impact on workplace performance.

Only 11% of performance gaps stem from a lack of skill or knowledge. No amount of ILS—or training in any format—can address gaps arising from other sources. To begin, make sure your gap is really a skill gap.

Next, determine whether the tasks you want to teach:

  • Call for contextualized practice
  • Demand dynamic decision making
  • Have high failure costs
  • Involve different contexts over time
  • Have delayed consequences

If you can answer “yes” to all or most of these questions, you may have a suitable candidate for ILS. The following research-tested design strategies can help ensure your ILS gets results.

Train the whole task
Giving learners whole problems to solve–rather than parts–promotes learning. You can do this by:

  • Letting performers explore alternative choices and experience the consequences in a safe environment
  • Collapsing more experiences into less time than is possible in the real world

Keep the simulation authentic
Authentic ILS matches the time constraints, complexity, criticality, ill-definition, and limited information learners will encounter. “Winning the game” should require the same rules of thumb as success on the job. Ensure authenticity by:

  • Letting students examine tasks from different perspectives, using multiple resources
  • Blending different subject areas
  • Seamlessly integrating training and authentic assessment
  • Allowing competing solutions with diverse outcomes
  • Changing surface features of a problem, and then pointing out underlying principles that apply across different examples

Employ scaffolding to enable learners to perform tasks to mastery
Providing “training wheels” helps novices perform earlier. Scaffolding can take the form of:

  • Job aids, cue cards, or “novice views” of software
  • Demonstrations of hard, new, or commonly misunderstood tasks
  • Work examples that show completed tasks, along with the thought processes exemplars used to complete them
  • Experts who act as coaches during an activity

Gradually remove whatever scaffolding you provide. When learners complete the assessment, they need to be flying solo.

Help learners index experiences to apply later
Learners need to reflect on what they have done, encoding their learning into long-term memory. Indexing can include:

  • Pre-training questions that help learners plan
  • Open-ended questions
  • “Time-outs” that ask learners to reflect on how well their strategies are working and what to do next
  • “After-action reviews” that debrief what happened and drive home lessons for future performance

Deborah and Steven are two of the 100+ presenters sharing their knowledge and expertise at THE Performance Improvement Conference 2011, April 10-13, in Orlando, Florida. If you would like to learn more, you may attend their 60-minute presentation, “Immersive Learning Simulations: Cutting through the Hype.”

Deborah Stone About the Authors
Deborah Stone, CPT, has been the CEO of DLS Group, Inc. Headquartered in Denver with a DC branch, DLS specializes in improving performance by leveraging cutting-edge technologies based on proven research and best practices to real-world performance solutions. She may be reached at

Steven W. Villachica, CPT, PhD, is an associate professor of instructional and performance technology at Boise State University. As a DLS Group strategic adviser, he provides strategic, research-based advice.