Using spreadsheets to promote student understanding

Using spreadsheets to promote student understanding

The aim of this resource is to illustrate how a spreadsheet simulation can be effectively deployed to help teach economics and business studies.

The target audience spans the spectrum of teachers who are new to the area of using spreadsheets in teaching and those who are well seasoned in the art. It is hoped that this resource will engage teachers and promote reflection on how spreadsheet simulations can be utilised within teaching.

This resource will outline a rationale for using spreadsheet simulations in teaching and illustrate how spreadsheets can be developed and mapped to specific learning objectives. The resource is divided into six sections that probe the areas of spreadsheet design, using spreadsheet simulations to analyse data, undertaking 'what happens if' analysis, modelling dynamic scenarios and how to embed them within assignments.

Throughout there are practical examples of how to build spreadsheets and illustrations of how a spreadsheet could be applied to achieve a stated learning objective. Throughout the sections there are tips for the use of spreadsheet simulations in the classroom, links to other resources and the use of spreadsheets within a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

The sections are:

Section 1: An introduction to models

Section 2: Making spreadsheets usable

Section 3: Using spreadsheets to analyse data

Section 4: Using spreadsheets for 'what if' analysis

Section 5: Using spreadsheets for dynamic / time-series modelling

Section 6: Embedding spreadsheets into assignments

An important question to ask in the first instance is, how can spreadsheets promote the understanding of principles in economics or business studies?

The complete answer is complex and outside the remit of this work. However, it is associated with the individual's learning style and the difficulty of understanding abstract models on paper. For instance, the bedrock of economics is the demand and supply model. However, many students find the model difficult to understand and apply from simply reading the textbook and listening to the lecture. Therefore, the development of a spreadsheet that simulates the behaviour of the demand and supply model is a very powerful learning aid.

The method by which the student learns through the use of a spreadsheet simulation can be linked to Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning.

The theory suggests that learning occurs as a direct result of the learner participating in events (or actions). This is a 'learner centred approach', where students learn best from experience or learn by 'doing', in contrast to a didatic style.

The theory suggests that a student needs to reflect on an experience, and from this reflection develop generalisations and concepts inline with the theory. For instance, the student needs to make a clear link between the theory and the action by planning for the action, carrying it out, reflecting upon it and relating what happens back to the theory. This builds into Kolb's four stage model, of

  1. concrete experience
  2. reflective observation
  3. abstract conceptualisation
  4. active experimentation

These ideas are readily applied to how a student could use a spreadsheet simulation of the demand and supply model to understand the workings of the market. For instance:

  1. The student changes a variable in the simulation
  2. The student reflects on what they have observed, in particular, what happened and why this outcome occured
  3. The student conceptualises the experience by cross referencing with the theory or the textbook
  4. Based on their new understanding the student thinks what should happen from a new situation and simulates this through the spreadsheet.

Then the learning process is repeated as the student repeats the stages.

The experiential learning theory promotes an active role for the teacher. In our case, the teacher is required to develop the spreadsheet models and build a supportive environment that will engage the student and allow them to actively construct understanding.

Resource Tip: More about Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning
The following links are a good starting place to find out more about the Theory of Experiential Learning

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Author: Andy Ramsden

Andy Ramsden is a Learning Technology Adviser in the Learning Technology Support Service ( at the University of Bristol. One of his primary responsibilities is to advise on the appropriate design of eLearning activities. He was previously employed by Biz/ed as the Research Officer for the Virtual Learning Arcade.