University of Exeter - School of Education B.Phil / M.Ed Modular Degree Programme
Learning Effectively with ICT - G161 Summer 1998 Professor Niki Davis
Evaluation of effectiveness in two case studies of learning using IT
Submitted by: Alastair Reynolds and Megan Dick Previous modules undertaken : G162

Case Study X
This page was written by Megan Dick


Computer simulations are often used in classrooms to teach various subjects. But are they an efficient way to teach students? Will students learn about the topic they are studying or about the computer program? And will the program stimulate the students to work well and engage them? The aim of this study is to find out if a simulation is an efficient way to teach students about building Motte and Bailey castles. The aim is not to teach the students about using computers. This case study will look at the use of a computer simulation program called 'Fletcher's Castle'. The simulation is used with year 7 students in a girl's school. Teachers at the school have used this program quite regularly. It is run on old Nimbus computers. There are about 15 computers, so the students usually work in groups of 2 or 3 when they are using the program.

Description of activity

The students are learning about the development of castle building in the Middle Ages, beginning with Motte and Bailey castles, as part of the Medieval Realms National Curriculum topic. These castles were built by William I in order to subdue the Saxons after the Conquest. They were built quickly using forced Saxon labour. They were made of a motte, which was a mound of earth, with a wooden tower on top of the mound. This overlooked a bailey, which was an open courtyard surrounded by a wooden fence. The castles were quick and cheap to build and William was able to build many of them throughout England. Norman knights patrolled the surrounding countryside and lived inside the walls of the fort.

Motte and Bailey castle

'Fletcher's Castle' is a simulation program that puts the students in the Normans situation. They try to build a Motte and Bailey castle with a fixed work force in ten days. They are given a number of Norman soldiers and Saxon workers and are asked to decide how many soldiers and workers to put on each task. The tasks are:

  1. Digging the ditch
  2. Building the Motte
  3. Cutting down wood
  4. Building the fence and the tower on top of the Motte
  5. Setting guards
  6. Collecting food

Only guards can do task 5 and 6, while both guards and workers can be set to do the other tasks. The key to succeeding in building the castle in the given amount of time is digging the ditch and collecting wood before you put workers on the other tasks. As well, if you do not send enough guards for food, the program informs the students that they have lost some workers to starvation. And if the students do not set enough guards, the Saxon workers escape and they do not have enough people to finish building the castle. They also lose random workers to injury and accident. As they make their decisions, the program shows them a picture of what they have accomplished in that day. They continue to make these choices until the ten days have elapsed. If they manage to get the bailey fence finished, they are told they have been successful, as their soldiers can shelter behind the walls while they finish the tower on top of the motte. Very few manage to build the entire castle in ten days time, though some manage to finish the fence and ditch.

Data collection method

The students had already used the program as part of the course they were following in year 7. I asked students to volunteer to come at lunchtime and use the program, and told them that I wanted to ask them some questions about it to use in a study. There were two groups of girls from two different classes. They had about 50 minutes to use the program. I let them get started on their own and they were fairly proficient at getting started. There were only a couple of questions from both groups about how to start. Most chose to work in groups of two and got to work straight away. As they worked, I went around and asked the groups or individuals the following set of questions:

  1. What did you learn from this program?
  2. What did you learn about Motte and Bailey castle from using this program?
  3. Name two things you think are important to know if you want to build a Motte and Bailey Castle.
  4. Was the program difficult to use?
  5. Do you think the program is boring / interesting / easy / fun?

The questions were structured to find out what they were specifically learning about Motte and Bailey castles from the using the program. The two things that are important about Motte and Bailey castles are that they are quick and cheap to build. This is the information that I hoped the students were learning or was being reinforced by using the program.

I also asked two teachers who had used the program regularly with their year 7 classes to answer some questions. They were given questionnaires to fill in. There would then be three teachers, including me, whose view of using the program could be studied. I wanted to see how clear their learning aims were for the students and what they expected the students to learn. The questions I asked were sometimes repetitive in order to elicit this information. The questions asked were:

  1. Why do you use the Fletcher's Castle simulation with your classes?
  2. What do you like about the program?
  3. Do you think the students enjoy using the program?
  4. What do you want your students to learn by using the program?
  5. What do you want them to learn about Motte and Bailey castles by using the program?
  6. Name two things you think the students should know when they have finished using the program.
  7. Are there any things you would like to change about the way the program works? (questions it asks, information it contains, the way it is set up, etc.)
  8. Do you think there are any advantages to using a computer simulation to teach students about Motte and Bailey castles?
  9. Do you think the computer simulation helps the students learn about Motte and Bailey castles? Why or why not?
  10. Any other comments?

The results of the questions asked of the students and those asked of the teachers can be found in Appendices A to D. As well, after the questions to the students, I have included my notes taken while observing the students using the program.

Access issues

Both the students and teachers were asked for their permission to use their responses in this study. The students volunteered to help and were told that their names would not be used.


This particular simulation program is difficult to study, as it does not entirely conform to normally studied simulation programs. Building a Motte and Bailey castle in this way is not something the students are likely to encounter in real life. Students are not strictly learning through an apprentice model, as historians today do not usually practice their skills by building ancient buildings. The skills that the students are learning have more to do with empathy and learning about the past through understanding it more fully, not the everyday skills employed by historians today. John Brown et al's (1995) ideas are useful at this point. The idea that what the students learn cannot be separated from how they learn appears in the answers given by the teachers. The teachers questioned for this study seemed to have a good idea that the students were learning many things. The Head of Department was convinced that the simulation as a good tool to use for several reasons. She listed empathy, decision-making skills, teamwork and fun as reasons she uses the simulation with her students. (Appendix C) The other teacher gave a similar variety of reasons as well. The Head of Department also had some interesting comments to make about advantages she sees in using the simulation to teach students about Motte and Bailey castles. She listed these reasons:

a) Working through a problem is infinitely more interesting, more stretching, and more educationally valid than just being given information about it.
b) You also get the non-subject specific skills - decision-making, teamwork, discussion, logical thinking.
c) It puts you THERE - it is the nearest we have to a time machine.

(Appendix C))

This shows that the teacher does feel that there is an aspect of authentic learning to using the simulation. As well, she sees problem solving as more educationally valid, as the students have to work through the problems themselves. The other teacher questioned also responded that the students remember what they learn in this lesson. She stated, "Pupils seem to remember principles later because of problem solving nature of the activity."(Appendix D))

The next question that can be asked is does the simulation engage the students? The teachers questioned about the program seemed convinced that the simulation is a good method to use to engage the students. One teacher said that the simulation "appeals to all levels of ability and is 'doable' at some level by every pupil." (Appendix D) The literature review provides several indicators of engaged learning. (Jones et al, 1994) From the answers received from the students, it would seem that the program succeeded in engaging the students. We can compare the students responses to some of the authors' (Jones et al, 1994) specific indicators of engaged learning.


Excerpts from Jones et al's explanation of indicators

Student's response to simulation program, based on answers to questions and observation

1. Vision of Engaged Learning

Successful, engaged learners are responsible for their own learning. These students are self-regulated and able to define their own learning goals and evaluate their own achievement.

The students were learning on their own. They regulated themselves and defined their goals. They saw the goal as building the castle in the given amount of time.

2. Tasks for Engaged Learning

Tasks need to be challenging, authentic, and multidisciplinary. They are authentic in that they correspond to the tasks in the home and workplaces of today and tomorrow.

The simulation is challenging and the students found it so, as some said they thought it was hard. It is arguable if the task is authentic, however.

4. Instructional Models & Strategies for Engaged Learning

The most powerful models of instruction are interactive. Instruction actively engages the learner, and is generative. Instruction encourages the learner to construct and produce knowledge in meaningful ways.

The simulation is definitely interactive. Observation showed the students were engaged very quickly. They worked co-operatively and problem solved to try and succeed at the simulation.

5. Learning Context of Engaged Learning

For engaged learning to happen, the classroom must be conceived of as a knowledge-building learning community. Such communities not only develop shared understandings collaboratively, but also create empathetic learning environments that value diversity and multiple perspectives.

The students worked well together and shared ideas in their pairs. However, the simulation was an isolated lesson and so cannot be considered to be part of a learning community, as the rest of the students' lessons have not been studied.

7. Teacher Roles for Engaged Learning

As a facilitator, the teacher provides the rich environments and learning experiences needed for collaborative study. The teacher is also required to act as a guide, a role that incorporated mediation, modeling, and coaching.

In this context, the teacher does not act as the primary information giver, but facilitates the students' use of the simulation program. The program is simple enough that the students very rarely need any intervention from the teacher.

8. Student Roles for Engaged Learning

One important student role is that of explorer. Interaction with the physical world and with other people allows students to discover concepts and apply skills. Students are then encouraged to reflect upon their discoveries, which is essential for the student as a cognitive apprentice. Apprenticeship takes place when students observe and apply the thinking processes used by practitioners.

One teacher questioned said that the simulation does help students learn about Motte and Bailey castles as, "it sets out the processes very clearly and gives pupils the chance to make decisions which would have had to have been made in real life at the time." (Appendix D) This can be seen as apprenticeship taking place.

The simulation therefore met many of these indicators of engaged learning. The students were engaged with the material and controlled their learning environment to a large degree. They also had a good idea of the goal of the simulation.

Cleary and Schank's views on designing quality software are also useful tools to use to evaluate the Fletcher's Castle simulation. Principle 1, Learn by Doing, is particularly necessary in this case. It states that the task that the students undertake must require the knowledge or skill which they are being asked to learn. This is the central point of this simulation. What are the teachers expecting the simulation to teach and what are the students learning? When asked this question, the teachers responded similarly. The Head of Department was very specific in what she wanted the students to learn. She listed:

a) How difficult it was for the Normans to establish their control in local areas - not just a walkover.
b) To reinforce the appearance, and quick, cheap, efficient nature of an Motte and Bailey castle
c) Then social and intellectual skills

(Appendix C)

These seem very complex pieces of knowledge for the students to understand. This teacher does recognize that the students will learn other things, such as social and intellectual skills, from using the program. However, when the students were questioned, they did not respond with this level of sophisticated understanding. These are some of the responses given by both the teachers and students when asked to name two things that are important when building a Motte and Bailey castle.

Appendix A

Appendix B

Head of Department
Appendix C

History Teacher
Appendix D

  • You have to set guards, keep collecting food.
  • You need food and need to organize your people to the right jobs.
  • Get lots of people and lots of wood and food.
  • Lots of guards and lots of people need to go for food.
  • First get the food then build the tower and fence.
  • You have to find food, and be near a forest.
  • You have to be alert of any enemies, alert to trouble.
  • Set guards, get food because you have to look after your workers and they need enough guards.

a) Normans had to work fast and think logically to survive
b) Motte and Bailey castle good for initial situation in which they found

Something about the complex processes of building these castles.

It is easy to see what the students learned. They learned how to beat the program and avoid the program's pitfalls. This is not necessarily a bad thing if this includes what the teachers wanted them to learn. The students did learn that the Normans had to set guards. But they did not seem to show any understanding of why it was necessary to set guards. They did not learn the complex information that the Head of Department wished them to learn.

I wanted the students to learn two aspects of building a Motte and Bailey castle: that they were quick and cheap to build. A few students did answer that they had learned that building a Motte and Bailey castle was quick. (Appendix A) Not all responded with this information however. Most of the students learned that the program penalizes them for not sending enough soldiers for food. This is not a central piece of knowledge about castles but as the program made it important, it was what the students learned. Therefore, it seems that the program is partly effective. It does contain the knowledge that the students need to learn, but the students seem to only learn some of it.

Conclusions and Personal Reflection

The students did not seem to learn all that the teachers wanted them to learn. The teachers had very high expectations of what the program could teach the students about the historical context and this does not seem to have been realised. I was surprised that the teachers had such clear expectations of the program. Their expectations also encompassed skills that are not explicit in a History lesson and I found this impressive. However, they did not seem to realize that most of the students were not learning the complex ideas that they wanted them to learn from the program. They may have made this knowledge explicit to the students when teaching them. This would have been a valuable additional question to put to them in the questionnaire.

Roger's theory of experiential learning makes the point that students want to learn and that teachers should facilitate this learning. He felt that if students participate completely and have control over the learning process, learning is facilitated. The students also need to be confronted with practical and social problems. All of these factors were present in the simulation lesson. Students worked well in groups, co-operating and discussing. Some were also using very good problem solving skills, though this sometimes had more to do with the goals of the program than with the teachers' learning aims. The program was also successful in engaging all of the students. Even the weaker students were able to take part and enjoyed the lesson. According to the teachers, the students remembered this lesson well after it took place and enjoyed it. From this, it can be concluded that this simulation is a useful teaching tool, though it did not accomplish all that was expected of it.

You may now wish to go to the Case Study Y page if you have not already read it.
Otherwise you can move on to the combined conclusions or return to the contents.

Assignment Quick Links
Title Page | Introduction | Contents | Case X Literature Review | Case Y Literature Review
Introduction to Cases | Case Study X | Case Study Y | Conclusions | References | Appendices