An activity theory perspective of how scenario-based simulations support learning: a descriptive analysis

Alexis Battista*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Background: The dominant frameworks for describing how simulations support learning emphasize increasing access to structured practice and the provision of feedback which are commonly associated with skills-based simulations. By contrast, studies examining student participants’ experiences during scenario-based simulations suggest that learning may also occur through participation. However, studies directly examining student participation during scenario-based simulations are limited. This study examined the types of activities student participants engaged in during scenario-based simulations and then analyzed their patterns of activity to consider how participation may support learning. Methods: Drawing from Engeström’s first-, second-, and third-generation activity systems analysis, an in-depth descriptive analysis was conducted. The study drew from multiple qualitative methods, namely narrative, video, and activity systems analysis, to examine student participants’ activities and interaction patterns across four video-recorded simulations depicting common motivations for using scenario-based simulations (e.g., communication, critical patient management). Results: The activity systems analysis revealed that student participants’ activities encompassed three clinically relevant categories, including (a) use of physical clinical tools and artifacts, (b) social interactions, and (c) performance of structured interventions. Role assignment influenced participants’ activities and the complexity of their engagement. Importantly, participants made sense of the clinical situation presented in the scenario by reflexively linking these three activities together. Specifically, student participants performed structured interventions, relying upon the use of physical tools, clinical artifacts, and social interactions together with interactions between students, standardized patients, and other simulated participants to achieve their goals. When multiple student participants were present, such as in a team-based scenario, they distributed the workload to achieve their goals. Conclusion: The findings suggest that student participants learned as they engaged in these scenario-based simulations when they worked to make sense of the patient’s clinical presentation. The findings may provide insight into how student participants’ meaning-making efforts are mediated by the cultural artifacts (e.g., physical clinical tools) they access, the social interactions they engage in, the structured interventions they perform, and the roles they are assigned. The findings also highlight the complex and emergent properties of scenario-based simulations as well as how activities are nested. Implications for learning, instructional design, and assessment are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number23
JournalAdvances in Simulation
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Activity theory
  • Distributed cognition
  • Legitimate peripheral participation
  • Scenario-based simulation
  • Simulation
  • Simulation-based instructional design
  • Simulation-based learning


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