Fundamentals of Dynamic Social Systems

Postgraduate course

Course description

Objectives and Content

This course teaches the basics of the System Dynamics method. System Dynamics helps explain how change takes place, why people misunderstand change, and why so many policies fail to solve problems. The method builds on a systems perspective where system parts influence each other and where knowledge from different fields of study may be needed. Students learn to recognize typical problem behaviours of dynamic systems, exemplified by global warming, over-utilization of natural resources, epidemics, price fluctuations. These are all problems of importance for sustainable development goals. Students learn to formulate hypotheses for why problems develop, and they learn to represent their hypotheses in simulation models and use the models to test their hypotheses. For models that give likely explanations of problem developments, students learn to formulate and test alternative policies in the very same models. At a more general level, the course gives training in applying the scientific method to socio-economic problems, it provides a common language for interdisciplinary research, and it gives training in project formulations and reporting.

Learning Outcomes

Express knowledge and understanding

Students gain knowledge about the System Dynamics method and its relation to standard science, operations research, and public and private management. They get to know the basics of dynamics systems (systems consisting of instantaneous and accumulating cause and effect relationships, feedback loops, nonlinearities, and delays) and tools for analysis such as causal loop diagrams, stock and flow diagrams, graphs, equations, and the simulation program Stella Online. This program is freely available. Students may also buy and use other versions of Stella. Students obtain knowledge about different ways to analyze and understand how cause and effect relationships create development over time (graphical integration and simulation). Finally, students know about misperceptions and simplified rules of thumb that people use to manage complex dynamic systems.

Apply knowledge and understanding

To practice the new knowledge is very important. A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) offers several types of training. Students are challenged to apply the tools and methods in quizzes, assignments, and interactive learning environments. Students also learn to apply structurally similar analogies to understand several important social challenges, where the most familiar situations serve as analogies for less transparent problems.

Make judgements

Students develop systems thinking skills and an intuitive understanding of the scientific method. This changes the perspective the students have on how problems develop and on how problems can be reduced. It also makes the students more deeply interested in analysis. As a consequence, a high fraction of the master students ends up in academia, in consulting, or in large organizations that set aside time for formal analysis.


The diagramming techniques that the students learn can be seen as tools for effective communication at an intermediate level between imprecise narratives and complex mathematical models. Students learn a short recipe, P'HAPI, for project design and for effective reporting from projects. Students practice their skills both in classroom discussions and assignments.

Develop learning skills

After finishing the course, students typically have a new and different view on how dynamic social systems work. This encourages them to ask new questions such as: what are the important stocks and feedback loops, is behaviour created endogenously or is it caused by external influences, do data indicate causal relationships or correlations, will the system counteract proposed policies etc. Once these questions are asked, they motivate analysis and learning.

ECTS Credits


Level of Study


Semester of Instruction

Required Previous Knowledge
Recommended Previous Knowledge
Prospective students should check that they understand what a mathematical function is and how it can be exposed in a graph. Students do not need knowledge of complex mathematical methods of analysis.
Credit Reduction due to Course Overlap
  • GEO-SD202 (10 ECTS)
  • GEO-SD230 (5 ECTS)
  • GEO-SD640 (5 ECTS)
  • GEO-SD662 (10 ECTS)
  • Access to the Course

    The course is open to all students at the graduate and the undergraduate level at the University of Bergen.

    If you are not a student at the University of Bergen, you may take the MOOC-version of this course, see:

    The MOOC is offered in both autumn and spring semesters, it is free, and gives 10 ECTS credit at the masters level.

    Teaching and learning methods

    The course material is readily available as an online course.

    The  course utilizes a number of new online teaching tools to help students develop deep understanding. The online course contains reading material, animations, videos, quizzes, interactive learning environments, and downloadable models. Students answer questions, solve problems, and watch videos. To build deep knowledge and to develop skills, students have to finish each and every task to make progress. Immediate feedback helps to correct your understanding step by step. This reduces the chance that students become overconfident in material that is misperceived.

    The course is of the flipped classroom type where students prepare before classes, and where classes are used to answer and discuss questions related to the pre-class preparations. This is an effective and social process where students interact intensely with each other and the instructor, an activity that has been found to contribute to deep learning. There are 15 class hours (five three-hour classes per week) and 32 hours of lab assistance (two four-hours labs per week) over a 5-week period from mid-August to mid-September.

    Compulsory Assignments and Attendance
    All quizzes and assignments in the course must be finished with acceptable quality and within deadlines to get access to the exam. Approved quizzes and assignments will be valid in the following three semesters.
    Forms of Assessment

    5 hours online exam.

    The exam assignment will be given in the language of instruction in the course.

    The exam answer must be submitted in the same language as the exam assignment.

    Grading Scale
    An ECTS grade is provided to the student at the end of the course according to the A-F scale.
    Assessment Semester
    Assessment in teaching semester.
    Reading List
    The reading list will be ready before 1 July for the autumn semester and 1 December for the spring semester.
    Course Evaluation
    All courses are evaluated according to UiB's system for quality assurance of education.
    Programme Committee
    The Programme Committee is responsible for the content, structure and quality of the study programme and courses
    Course Administrator
    The Department of Geography at the Faculty of Social Sciences has the administrative responsibility for the course and the study programme.