Students’ knowledge and perceptions of international relations and the ‘Model United Nations’: an empirical analysis


Unconventional learning activities such as games and simulations have been widely used as teaching tools in international relations (IR) in the recent years. The literature on simulations and student learning has often highlighted a lack of empirical evidence in the existing research. The paper aims at providing empirical support to illustrate the ways in which simulations might influence students’ levels of (factual and self-evaluated) knowledge and perceptions of IR. The study is based on extensive empirical material, collected through questionnaires submitted to 298 students who participated in the 2014 edition of the National Model United Nations in New York (NMUN·NY).

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Source author’s own elaboration

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Source author’s own elaboration

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Source author’s own elaboration


  1. 1.

    On NATO see, for instance, the “International Model NATO Conference,” available at:

  2. 2.

    For a detailed list of benefits see, among others: Brunazzo and Settembri (2012).

  3. 3.

    Most analyses have examined “affective learning” (Garard et al. 1998, p. 39), focusing on students’ attitudes towards the simulation. For a review see: Giovanello et al. (2013, p. 199).

  4. 4.

    For an overall view of students’ nationalities and school origins, please see:

  5. 5.

    Depending on the committee and on the general structure of the simulation, also NGOs, IGOs, and other regional actors may be represented by students.

  6. 6.

    While the Consules Research Board is formed by junior and senior researchers, the Academic Board is composed of full professors coming from the partner universities, usually one per school.

  7. 7.

    About 76% of applicants passed the test and were eligible for participation.

  8. 8.

    We consider seminars/courses such as: theories of international relations, geopolitics, international politics, global affairs, international law, international humanitarian law, and international organizations.

  9. 9.

    Questions were prepared before the beginning of the courses and then submitted randomly from T0 to T1 and T2, in order to keep the same level of difficulty.

  10. 10.

    Students gave a score from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).

  11. 11.

    Also in this case, students gave a score from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating elements considered to be of little relevance.

  12. 12.

    The so-called Dunning-Kruger effect consists in a cognitive bias, according to which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from “illusory superiority.” See: Kruger and Dunning (1999).

  13. 13.

    The figures represent an average of the values expressed by each student.

  14. 14.

    For all the issues students with IT/IL background declared to have an higher level of self-evaluated knowledge. As an exception, about “diplomatic relations,” students without IR/IL background declared at T2 a higher level of knowledge than those with background.

  15. 15.

    In fact, 1 is the maximum rate ascribable to cooperation and 5 to conflict.

  16. 16.

    Delta T0–T1 = 0.15, T1–T2 = 0.01 and T0–T2 = 0.16.

  17. 17.

    While for neoliberalism, states seek to maximize absolute gains, “realism's identification of the relative gains problem for cooperation is based on its insight that states in anarchy fear for their survival as independent actors” (Grieco 1988, p. 487).


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The authors wish to thank Lorenzo Cicchi, Graziano C. Gallitto, Francesco N. Moro and “Associazione Consules” for their suggestions and support. Enrico Calossi wrote the sections “Simulation and IR”, “Factual knowledge” and “Self-evaluated knowledge”; Fabrizio Coticchia wrote “Research design”, and “Perceptions”. All the other sections (“Introduction”, “The 2014 NMUN-NY: structures and procedures” and “Conclusions”) have been written jointly by the two authors.

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Correspondence to Fabrizio Coticchia.

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Calossi, E., Coticchia, F. Students’ knowledge and perceptions of international relations and the ‘Model United Nations’: an empirical analysis. Acta Polit 53, 409–428 (2018).

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  • Simulation
  • Model United Nations
  • Perceptions
  • Knowledge
  • IR