tl;dr: Specificity and Surprise help make things memorable. Simulations can do both by creating first-hand (specific) experiences that offer uncertain (surprising) outcomes to make teaching points more memorable.  

In a memorable podcast interview that is now almost a decade old, Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell discussed the elements that make an idea engaging: specificity and surprise. This playful dialogue was framed in the context of country music and small talk, but it actually offers an interesting lens into the challenge of engaging learners. One of the reasons we decided to build digital exercises is that when done right, they excel at integrating specificity and surprise. Plus, since they work well online and on-campus, simulations and other digital exercises offer turnkey experiences that allow educators to create impactful learning experiences that resonate deeply with students, and that end up being highlights of their academic careers.

SPECIFICITY: ANCHORING IDEAS IN THE REAL WORLD 

In the podcast interview, Malcolm Gladwell emphasized that specificity is essential for making an idea memorable. He argues that specificity is what makes country music and its detailed tales of woe so powerful. Gladwell contrasts this with rock and roll music, whose abstract concepts are described superficially and often fail to engage as well since they lack the tangible details that can connect to our real-world experiences. Specificity provides concrete examples and scenarios that make the material relatable and memorable.

In academia, simulations serve as an effective tool for introducing this kind of specificity. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and at the MBA level they are often purposefully selected from a wide variety of industries. This makes an instructor’s efforts to draw from specific shared experiences quite challenging. However, instructors can create specific shared experiences by using simulations and digital exercises. For example, in Wharton’s introductory operations management course, students participate in the Loan Processing game where they make up a simulated loan committee. All students will end up experiencing the challenge of correctly approving or rejecting an imposing stack of loan applications.

Image of the list of loans to be processed.

“Loan Processing game loan menu”, SimCase, 2024. Author’s screenshot.

The decision-making process to divide up entire loans or divide up the underlying tasks creates a specific shared experience that is actually similar to the specific challenges faced by operations managers everywhere. This is the first step of engaging students in an experience they will ultimately find interesting and by extension memorable.

SURPRISE: ENHANCING ENGAGEMENT THROUGH UNPREDICTABILITY

Adam Grant’s contribution to the theory about what’s interesting is based on a paper by Murray Davis that outlines the role surprise plays (link). Unexpected elements capture attention and stimulate curiosity, making the learning process more dynamic and intriguing.

Academic simulations inherently incorporate surprise through their competitive framing and dynamic outcomes. Each simulation unfolds uniquely based on the decisions and interactions of participants, ensuring that outcomes are a surprise. For instance, in the Loan Processing game, students are seeking to outperform the other simulated bank branches in their session. Typically, groups opt to divide up entire loans since this requires less time investment in coordinating activities.

Image of tasks to complete loan

“Loan Processing game loan details”, SimCase, 2024. Author’s screenshot.

However, what they don’t often realize is that groups that choose to divide up tasks benefit from this specialization and tend to correctly process more loans. During the debrief, students are surprised by that realization, and this makes the teaching point about the benefits of specialization truly resonate.

ADDING MORE SPECIFICITY AND SURPRISE INTO YOUR EXISTING SYLLABUS 

The insights from Grant and Gladwell’s discussion underscore the benefits of integrating specificity and surprise into class sessions. Educators can enhance the effectiveness of their teaching by incorporating detailed, realistic examples and introducing elements of unpredictability.

The Loan Processing game described above is time bound and can be deployed, completed, and unpacked in under 30 minutes. This is intentional, and hopefully allows instructors to use them without changing an existing syllabus or training program. This is the hallmark of SimCase exercises, and the teaching points covered continue to grow.

We invite instructors and training professionals to explore our library (link) and consider how specificity and surprise can be integrated into their existing teaching methods. By doing so, we can collectively advance the effectiveness of education, inspire a deeper level of engagement, and create more memorable experiences in the classroom.

If you want to double-click on these concepts, the following link will fast-forward you to this part of the discussion, but you should enjoy the full podcast when you have the chance (07:25 mark – link).