Using Exercises and Simulations to Engage Students

Cultural simulations and other exercises take students out of their normal roles of listening and discussing and ask them to participate in activities relevant to course learning. This kind of active learning can:

  1. increase student interest in the material;
  2. make the material more meaningful;
  3. allow students to refine and elaborate their understanding of the material;
  4. provide opportunities for students to relate the learning to broader concepts and situations 1 .

Current research supports the value of exercises. The experience of becoming someone from another culture during cultural simulations leads to heightened understanding of what it is like to be stigmatized. It can increase one's ability to see a situation from another person or culture's perspective. Simulating being in oppressive situations promotes analysis and identification as well as cognitive and emotional processing 2 .

This section describes a number of exercises and simulations that can be used in teaching diversity-related materials. Others are explained in relevant sections of this website. Two excellent sources of material are Experiential Activities for Intercultural Learning and Teaching About Culture, Ethnicity, and Diversity: Exercises and Planned Activities , both available in the LEARN Center library.

BaFa BaFa This is a simulation game that divides students into two fundamentally differing cultures, Alpha and Beta. Members of each culture are exchanged on a "tourist-like" basis for very brief periods of time. As participants are forbidden to explain the rules of their culture to members of the other culture, understanding comes from observation and trial and error participation. Alpha is patterned on closed "high-context" cultures where interpersonal relationships and physical closeness are prized values. Greetings are highly formulaic. Beta on the other hand is a "time is money", "you are what you earn" trading culture. To make the simulation even more realistic Beta even has a specialized "trading language" to replicate the effect of dealing with a foreign language. This game can be checked out from the Race and Ethnic Cultures Program, 343 Salisbury Hall, 472-1553.

Star Power is a simulation game that involves trading items and illustrates the dynamics of power and privilege, in that the rules to a great extent benefit some groups and disadvantage others. Introducing and playing the game takes at least an hour, so the instructor needs to be ready to start the simulation at the moment the class starts. This will allow enough time for class discussion in a 75 minute class period. This game can be checked out from the Race and Ethnic Cultures Program, 343 Salisbury Hall, 472-1553.

Asking students to physically move during an exercise, with some getting closer to a reward than others, can also illustrate inequality and privilege. The Stepping Forward and Back exercise uses a large open space (the instructor would need to find a space other than a classroom for this exercise). Students line up about fifty feet from each other in two lines. At the midpoint between them is a table with a reward (like small candy bars). The instructor reads a statement (like "Assume that you were living in the USA in 1919. You would be able to vote" and "I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group"). Discussion after the exercise can focus on what it felt like to be a "winner" or "loser." This exercise can be adapted to fit the specific content of a class.

One of the Building Blocks for understanding diversity is social identity. An instructor can introduce the topic one class session, perhaps using the worksheet Understanding our Social Identities to help students understand that they have multiple identities that are important to them. Students can also be asked to bring an artifact or special object which represents an identity which is important to them-this may be from a strong interest or represent their race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Students are asked to bring these in a paper bag. One by one, students are asked to share the object by removing it from the sack and talking about it, telling why the object is important or symbolic.

Diversity Bingo is a game which can be used early in a semester to help students get to know each other and to reinforce the concept that we have all have multiple identities. Students are given cards (similar in size to Bingo cards) with twenty-five identities, such as "a person of Asian heritage," "a person who speaks more than one language," and "A person born and raised on a farm." Students circulate around the room, asking other students if they fit specific identities. Discussion following the activity can be used to not only to illustrate the concept of multiple identities but also to elicit examples in which a student had an identity that was not apparent to other students. Cards for Diversity Bingo can be checked out from the LEARN Center. A variation of this, Discovery Hunt , can be adapted by instructors to fit their specific course and learning objectives.

  1. Singelis, Theodore M. (1998). Teaching about culture, ethnicity, and diversity: Exercises and planned activities. Thousand Oaks , CA : Sage., p. ix.
  2. Kiselica, Mark S. (1999) Confronting prejudice: Converging themes and future directions In Confronting prejudice and racism during multicultural training , Mark S. Kiselica, ed. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association, pp. 187-198.