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Learning through Cycles of Preparation, Simulation, and Reflection—Jennifer Harrison (2019)


A business law instructor modifies an undergraduate-level course on negotiation to include simulations that help students learn theory, as well as increase their confidence and comfort level with negotiation and conflict resolution.


In Negotiations and Dispute Settlement (BLAW/MGMT 525), students learn the theory and practice of negotiation and conflict resolution. Negotiation simulations and role-plays allow students to explore and test the theories and research findings described in readings and class lecture/discussion. Preparation and reflection assignments related to each simulation prompt students to consider the relative merits of various tactics and techniques.


This course is designed to operate in a spiral pattern. Through a series of weekly prepare/practice/reflect cycles, students refine each new cycle based on their ever-increasing body of knowledge and experience. The process builds over the course of the semester to a final project.

Student Work

Overall, a statistical analysis of student work indicated that students’ comfort level with negotiation improved significantly over time, from the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. Student performance and grades also showed a similar increase.


I received feedback during the course that students would like to see more examples of negotiation during the lecture portion of the class. To that end, I have worked to gather and include more recorded examples of negotiation, from news articles to popular movies and TV shows. This also led me to include a group presentation in which the students find and analyze a scene of negotiation from TV or a movie, and present their analysis to other students in the course.

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In Negotiations and Dispute Settlement (BLAW/MGMT 525; Fall 2017 and Fall 2018), students learn the theory and practice of negotiation and conflict resolution. The over-arching goal is for students to develop skills and confidence and increase their level of comfort in negotiating. Negotiation simulations and role-plays allow students to explore and test the theories and research findings described in readings and class lecture/discussion. Preparation and reflection assignments related to each simulation prompt students to consider the relative merits of various tactics and techniques. The students consider not just “does this theory of negotiation make sense?” but “does this approach to negotiation work for my own personal style of negotiating?” The semester culminates in each student’s development of his or her own negotiation preparation plan, in which the student creates a list of negotiation preparation questions and practices to guide their future negotiations.

The Negotiations course is an elective for some business majors; it is not required for any major in the business school. For most students, the value of the course lies mostly in the opportunity to increase skill, confidence, and comfort in situations that require negotiation. Most students are juniors or seniors in the business school or graduate students in accounting. Enrollment generally ranges between 28-35 students, and the class meets twice each week for 75-minute sessions during the fall semester.

Negotiation is a skill. Like all skills, it improves with practice. In re-working the course after Fall 2016, my most important goal was to focus significantly more course time on skill development through practice. Prior iterations of the course included fewer simulations, devoted more class-time to lecture, and centered evaluation on objective assessments of students’ knowledge of the theories taught in lecture. I wanted students to view theories of negotiation as tools to be used and evaluated through frequent negotiation simulation experiences. Ultimately, I wanted students to feel prepared to tackle the real negotiations that they will face in their own lives after they leave the course.

To that end, the course goals now center on skill development. By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • Prepare for a negotiation;
  • Diagnose the kind of negotiation or conflict at issue;
  • Respond with negotiating strategies and tactics appropriate both to the situation and the student’s particular strengths; and
  • Assess the quality of the resolution.

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I envision the course as a spiral—a series of weekly prepare/practice/reflect cycles in which students refine each new cycle based on their ever-increasing body of knowledge and experience. The process builds over the course of the semester to a final project.

A typical week begins with a lecture/discussion of some aspect of negotiation theory. I then assign roles for a negotiation simulation. The simulations require students to take on the role of a person who faces some conflict or opportunity that requires negotiation. Confidential role sheets describe the situation from a particular character’s point of view, usually taking into account the character’s needs, constraints, fears, desires, and understanding of prior experiences with any of the other characters in the simulation. The role sheet will describe only the facts and point of view that would be available to that particular character. The role sheets do not provide a script for a negotiation, but instead describe a situation. For most simulations, each student will interpret in his or her own way the character’s particular goals and plans for achieving them.

Outside of class, between the first and second sessions of the week, I scaffold assignments: students prepare for the negotiation by submitting answers to a few questions designed to help them plan for the simulation by drawing on the theories and research discussed in class. As the semester progresses, students are prompted to pose and answer their own preparation questions. Students explore and develop their own negotiating styles and practices.

In the second class session of the week, we often prepare further in groups before students conduct the negotiation simulation. For instance, all students playing a particular character may meet together to discuss their preparation and consider additional preparation questions provided by the instructor. In some instances, these group preparation sessions are conducted entirely by the students. In other instances, a teaching assistant and I guide the group preparation sessions.

Once preparation is complete, the students are either paired with a negotiating counterpart or assigned to groups of negotiators, depending on the structure of the simulation. Students then conduct the negotiation simulation in class, working to achieve the goals of the character they have been assigned. Once students complete the negotiation, they turn in a description of the terms of their agreement before leaving the classroom.

After class, students submit short post-negotiation writings, evaluating their experience and reflecting on the helpfulness (or not) of their preparation questions. Students’ post-negotiation writings, and the results of their negotiations, provide fodder for an in-class “debrief” in the following class period. Students use their experiences in each negotiation to refine their preparation questions for the next simulation. Ultimately, students’ pre- and post-negotiation writings become the raw materials for their final project.

The semester culminates in a final project that requires each student to create a personalized template of negotiation preparation questions. Rather than a final exam, I wanted to design a final project that made the skills developed in class concrete, personal, and portable beyond the classroom for each student. The final project for the course is now an Annotated Negotiation Preparation Template. Students prepare a list of questions and tactics or techniques they intend to consider using in their future (real, outside-of-class) negotiations. Students annotate their templates to describe the theories that gave rise to each question or tactic and their own experiences using that question or tactic in the classroom simulations. The result is a template of specific, personalized, and “battle-tested” negotiation preparation questions and techniques.

Course assessment:

Specifically, students’ performance in this course was evaluated through the following assignments:

Pre- and Post-Negotiation Submissions. The bulk of the learning in this course comes from preparing for, conducting, and reflecting on the negotiation simulations. There is approximately one simulation per week. For some simulations, students complete the pre-negotiation work in class. For others, they complete pre-negotiation work outside of class and turn it in before the class in which the simulation occurs. The post-negotiation work is usually done outside of class.

Final Individual Project: Annotated Negotiation-Prep Template. Students are required to create their own Negotiation Preparation Template, which is a list of questions they can ask themselves to prepare for future negotiations, and a list of tactics or techniques they found useful in preparing for the in-class negotiations. The project is graded according to a rubric, and the raw material for this template comes from students’ pre- and post-negotiation submissions, as they try out methods (preparation questions, techniques, and tactics), and evaluate whether and in what instances those methods were useful for them.

Final Group Project: Evaluating Negotiations on TV. In Fall 2018, I added a group project in which students found a scene of negotiation in a movie or television show, identified how characters use the negotiation techniques we have discussed in class, evaluated the relative merits of the techniques used by the characters, and presented the scene and their analysis to the class. The projects were then evaluated by their peers, the teaching assistant, and myself using a rubric.

Quizzes. There are four announced quizzes covering topics discussed in class. I occasionally give unannounced quizzes covering the basic facts of students’ roles in the negotiation simulation planned for the day.

Quality of Participation. There are two components. First, students are required to assess the quality of their peers’ participation in negotiation exercises (each student evaluates his or her negotiating counterpart’s preparation and performance in the negotiation on a simple 1 to 3 scale). Second, I also take into account students’ contributions to class discussions.

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Student Work

Overall, my students performed very well in this course. All students earned a B- or higher in their final course grade. In 2017 and 2018 respectively, 22 out of 29 students (76%) and then 27 out of 34 students (79%) earned an A- or better. Their grades to some extent demonstrated that my students achieved the goals I set for this course. The grades overall in BLAW 525 tend to be fairly high compared with some other courses that I teach. I suspect there are two reasons for the high grades. First, students in BLAW 525 are more experienced college students (mainly juniors, seniors, and graduate students). Second, the course is an elective, so students in the course tend to be motivated by a genuine interest in the subject matter. The combination of experience with college-level courses and intrinsic motivation about the subject matter translates to a higher level of effort than I see in my lower-level business law courses.

I also found that my students in Fall 2017 had better grades on the simulation activities after the mid-term with an average grade of 90.48%. This grade improved from 87.73% for the composite average grade on stimulation activities before the mid-term. I thought perhaps that students better understood the structure of the assignments in the second half of Fall 2017 (see below).

Examples of Pre- and Post-Negotiation Submissions

Below are summaries of selected student reflections on a simulation in which the students played one of four roles: the agent of an opera singer, the opera singer, the artistic director of an opera house, or the agent negotiating on behalf of the opera house. The simulation involved agency issues not faced in prior simulations and included both distributive and integrative aspects. In their post-negotiation reflections, students analyzed their performance in the negotiation through the lens of the theories we discussed in class.

A student who earned an A analyzed her own performance in some detail, including her concerns about the newly introduced agency aspect of this negotiation. She described not only her concerns going into the situation, but also the techniques she used to address those concerns and the relative success of those techniques. Such an analysis will lead her in later simulations to consider how she might structure the situation or alter tactics to address an agent/principal issue within a negotiation. She also explicitly ties her tactics to particular theories or practices we discussed in class. For instance, she describes her decision to use a two-sided argument structure and her implementation of that structure in the negotiation. It is clear she is learning the theory, putting the theory into practice in the simulation, and then reflecting critically on how to better negotiate in the future.

A student who earned an A-minus answered the assigned questions carefully, but drew on fewer of the theories and practices we had discussed in class. This negotiation included many integrative aspects, such as the parties stood to gain significantly if they could work together to find mutual areas of interest rather than focusing on dividing what they may have perceived to be a fixed resource. This student focuses mainly on distributive theories and tactics. His analysis and use of those tactics is good, but he fails to consider many of the integrative techniques discussed in class that could have been used to great benefit in this exercise.

A student who earned a B answered the questions by describing more than analyzing his experience. He drew some lessons from his experience (which likely saved him from a C grade), but overall the analysis does not extend much beyond description. He appropriately uses some terms from the theories discussed in class but does little to tie those theories to his experience in the negotiation.

Feedback Questionnaire

To help me improve the course and confirm that my students met my expectations, I also collected feedback surveys at beginning, middle, and end of each semester. In the first day survey, I asked students questions such as “Have you taken any courses or seminars on negotiation before?” or “Do you have any internship or working experience?” Their answers indicated that most students didn’t have a sophisticated background in negotiation and were taking a negotiation-like course for the first time.

In the middle-semester check-in, my students rated whether they had learned useful skills in the course on a 10-point scale. The average rating for this question in Fall 2017 was 9, indicating that most students felt satisfied about the content at the midpoint. I also asked them open questions for me to improve the course for the rest semester.

A similar survey was collected at the end of semester. I asked students questions such as “Do you feel you have improved on your skills, confidence, and level of comfort in negotiating over the course of the semester?” or “Would you have preferred to have the same assigned prep team from the beginning of the semester to the end, or was it helpful to work with different teams of students throughout the semester?” Most students left positive feedback and mentioned that they felt more comfortable and confident negotiating due to the experience they had in this course.

In addition, for the course in Fall 2018, I let my students rate their level of comfort and confidence in negotiation situations before and after taking this course on a 10-point scale (1= not comfortable/ not confident, 10 = very comfortable/confident). The statistical test below indicated that students’ comfort level with negotiation improved significantly over time, from the beginning (Mean = 4.79, SD = 1.87), middle (Mean = 8.27, SD = .80) to the end of the semester (Mean = 8.80, SD = .86; See graph below).

Moreover, students were allowed to provide comments about the various simulations and activities (see table below). I used the student feedback from Fall 2017 to make some changes to some of the simulations and to change the order in which we conducted some of the simulations. This allowed me to draw clearer connections between each simulation and the theories we were discussing during its respective week of class.

I continue to use student feedback to refine the activities. In particular, one of the most important simulations—a job salary negotiation—is also one of the most difficult to construct. Using student feedback, I am working to make this exercise both more individualized for each student and more practical for a classroom activity. While I am not yet completely satisfied with the structure of the job salary negotiation simulation, it continues to improve each semester as a result of student input.

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Professor Jennifer Harrison

Jennifer Harrison


On anonymous questionnaires at the end of the semester, all students reported feeling that their negotiation skills had improved and that the simulations were helpful. Some student comments included:

  • “Being able to try things out and actually see how they worked/didn’t was very helpful.”
  • “The simulations allowed me to apply the content continually and constructively.”
  • “The simulations proved to be very helpful because it requires you to use the knowledge and information in order to achieve a goal, which really helped me learn more about each concept.”

I have been thrilled to hear from several students who put the theories into practice in their own real negotiations after the course ended. It is one of the uniquely joyful privileges of being a teacher to have a student call to report negotiating a better salary or better working conditions based on our classroom experiences. I am convinced that the skills-based approach is the right methodology for this course.

Of course, there are always improvements to be made. I received feedback during the course that students would like to see more examples of negotiation during the lecture portion of the class. To that end, I have worked to gather and include more recorded examples of negotiation, from news articles and also from popular movies and TV shows. This also led me to add a group presentation in which students find and analyze a negotiation scene from TV or a movie and then present their analysis to the other students in the course. This was one of the most useful assignments in the Fall 2018 semester. The group aspect of the assignment led to interesting discussions among the students. The assignment also allowed students to practice spotting different kinds of negotiation structures and different techniques and tactics. I plan to continue using the group presentation assignment in addition to the individual project as summative experiences for students.

This is the beginning of the course transformation—not the end. Based in part on initial student feedback, I plan to:

  • Make better use of real-world news examples to illustrate theories and strategies during the lecture portion of the class;
  • Look for more ways to pull theoretical points from students’ experiences, pulling examples from students post-negotiation reflections to illustrate points in future lectures; and
  • Continue to revise or change some simulations to better integrate theories with students’ practice opportunities.

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