Cyber Exercises in Computer Science Education
Melisa Gafic
1 a
, Simon Tjoa
1 b
, Peter Kieseberg
1 c
, Otto Hellwig
2 d
and Gerald Quirchmayr
Institute of IT Security Research, St. P
olten University of Applied Sciences, 3100 St. P
olten, Austria
University of Vienna, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Cyber Exercises, Cyber Security, Cyber Resilience, HEI.
Due to the strong dependence of companies on their ICT and the high relevance of stable services to remain
competitive in the global market, cyber security and resilience play an increasingly important role. However,
information security is not only an important issue in the corporate context but also in the societal context. For
this reason, nearly all computer science programs at higher education institutions (HEI) incorporate this topic.
In this paper, we introduce a table-top cyber security exercise lecture format and the experiences gathered
over the last years. The approach is currently used to teach computer science students as well as information
security students at two higher education institutions in Austria. Additionally, we briefly highlight how the
approach was adapted in order to satisfy the compelling need to teach the course remotely due to Corona
During COVID 19-crisis the security and resilience of
critical information system have been more important
than ever before. Breaches and cyber security inci-
dents impressively highlighted the importance of cy-
ber security and especially incident response (ENISA,
2020). In order to ensure resilience of systems, and
to prepare for a such unpredictable cyber threats, it
is necessary to continuously train people how to pur-
posefully react on these threats and to communicate
within the team under difficult circumstances (Wil-
hemson and Svensson, 2014). Therefore, exercises
especially cyber exercises, play a central role in es-
tablishing a resilient society.
Cyber exercises have gained a lot of attention
throughout recent years, especially in the cyber se-
curity sector, as an important tool for security train-
ing, awareness-building and testing incident response.
The EU emphasises the importance of this field in
its strategy for the digital decade (European Com-
mission, 2020). Large exercises, that make it to the
news, such as CyberStorm (Cybersecurity & Infras-
tructure Security Agency (CISA), ), Locked Shields
(The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of
Excellence, 2021) or Cyber Europe (ENISA, 2021),
represent only a small fraction of the exercises car-
ried out. Conducting cyber exercises also has an ed-
ucational value. Through interactive activities, such
as simulations and scenarios, exercise participants
apply knowledge in practical situations using tech-
niques and tools they are familiar with, thereby deep-
ening their understanding of a particular type of inci-
dent (Dewar, 2018).
Although cyber security has gained a lot of atten-
tion and also found its way to most modern computer
science curricula, the development of skills in the area
of cyber exercises still did not get a lot of attention.
A major discriminator to more traditional forms of
training, especially lectures with test, is the simula-
tion of real-life environments, realistic work environ-
ments and especially stress. To change the situation,
we started to research how the topic can be taught to
students in order to empower them to gain the neces-
sary skill set to develop, run and evaluate cyber exer-
cises in their future.
The major contribution of this paper is the pre-
sentation of a didactic concept highlighting how the
increasingly important topic of cyber exercises can be
taught in higher education institutions (HEI). It fur-
ther shares our experiences of nearly ten years and
outlines the challenges, pitfalls and benefits of cyber
exercises in computer science curricula. Using cyber
exercises as a learning method allows students at HEI
to simulate cyber security incidents for hypothetical
Gafic, M., Tjoa, S., Kieseberg, P., Hellwig, O. and Quirchmayr, G.
Cyber Exercises in Computer Science Education.
DOI: 10.5220/0010845800003120
In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy (ICISSP 2022), pages 404-411
ISBN: 978-989-758-553-1; ISSN: 2184-4356
2022 by SCITEPRESS – Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
situations and practice their required decision-making
expertise and capabilities.
The remainder of this paper is structured as fol-
lows: In Section 2 we provide an overview about ex-
isting publications on cyber security exercises as well
as on educational planning games. In Section 3 we
outline our teaching concept, which was elaborated in
the past decade. In Section 5, we highlight the feed-
back of the students of the corresponding courses. We
conclude our work in Section 6.
In this section, we outline the relevant research in the
context of cyber exercises in higher education. Be-
sides providing an overview on selected approaches
in teaching, we highlight essential literature, which
have been influenced the design and conception of the
herein presented approach.
The effectiveness and importance of plan-
ning/simulation games as a learning and teaching tool
has been outlined in the meta-analysis by Vogel (Jen-
nifer J. Vogel et al., 2006). It was found that interac-
tive activities such as games and simulations increase
motivation and learning outcomes compared to the
traditional teaching methods.
Also Prensky discusses in his paper (Prensky,
2002) how challenging is to keep students motivated
through the entire learning process. In contrast to the
traditional environment in HEI, playing interactive
games can be engaging and achieving some scores or
prizes can be very relaxing and motivating.
Steinkuehler emphasizes in (Steinkuehler, 2010)
that through games, students can acquire various
skills and be more enthusiastic about learning. How-
ever, beside acquired knowledge, students, as a com-
plete individuals, have to develop different skills and
gain experiences that may help them to think or react
rationally in new situations (Blazenka Divjak, 2011).
2.1 Cyber Exercise Guidelines
As defined in ISO 22398:2013 exercises are ”a pro-
cess to train for, assess, practice, and improve perfor-
mance in an organization” (ISO, 2013). Derived from
this definition, cyber exercises can be defined as an
event, in which organizations simulate a cyber secu-
rity incident in order to develop and test skills in the
prevention, detection, mitigation and recovery of op-
erations from cyber attack or security incident.
In order to facilitate a process of planning and or-
ganizing such events, many studies have been con-
ducted, which identified key components of a cyber
exercise. In 2015, the Spanish National Cybersecu-
rity Institute Incibe published a taxonomic classifica-
tion scheme that provides a comprehensive survey on
existing cyber exercises (Incibe, 2015). Based on col-
lected information about existing cyber exercises, the
authors defined a set of metrics and indicators for cy-
ber exercise profiling and developed a taxonomy pro-
posal to better plan and improve future cyber exer-
In Cybersecurity and Cyberdefense Exercises Re-
port (Dewar, 2018), the authors identified goals,
types, actors and resources as a core elements of cy-
ber defense exercise and also give insights into the ex-
periences and lessons learned based on various After
Action Reports (AAR).
The ENISA Good Practice Guide, which is widely
used in the EU, describes the general organizational
process from preparation to implementation of lo-
cal and national cyber exercise (ENISA, 2009). The
guide systematically explains the key steps in the life-
cycle for exercises (identifying, planning, conducting,
and evaluating). According to ENISA, it is essential
to incorporate experiences from previous exercises
into the planning and setting of framework conditions
in order to achieve the best possible outcome. There-
fore, in addition to this guideline, the Latest Report on
National and International Cyber Security Exercises
(ENISA, 2015) was published. The report analyses
the consisting data set of over 200 exercises and dis-
cusses the outcomes of previous exercises.
Similar to ENISA Good Practice Guide, the
Department of Homeland Security published The
Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program
(HSEEP) (FEMA, 2020). HSEEP’s life cycle (Pro-
gram Management, Exercise Development and De-
sign, Exercise Conduct, Exercise Evaluation, Im-
provement Planning) is very flexible and can be
adapted to different types of exercises.
The Swedish Defence University (FHS) has pub-
lished a Handbook for planning, running, and evalu-
ating information technology and cyber security exer-
cises (Wilhemson and Svensson, 2014). Besides the
detailed description of exercise planning steps, this
handbook contains practical experiences from previ-
ous exercises and a list of criteria for the technical
exercise environment (e.g. Communication prepara-
tions, Exercise network, Equipment etc.).
In Cyber Exercise Playbook (Kick, 2015), MITRE
describes practical guidance on cyber exercises pro-
cess and gives an overview of essential activities of
every phase. This playbook also provides tips and
common pitfalls of previous exercises as well as sam-
ple documents and templates to assist planners of ex-
Cyber Exercises in Computer Science Education
2.2 Cyber Exercises
To get an overall overview of cyber exercise we an-
alyzed after action reports (AAR) of previous cyber
exercises and their results of the execution (goals,
objectives, scenario, participants etc.). Based on
the number of participants, three largest and popu-
lar cyber-exercises are Cyber Europe (ENISA, 2021),
Cyber Storm (Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security
Agency (CISA), ) and Locked Shields (The NATO
Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence,
Cyber Europe is organised by the European
Union Agency for Network and Information Security
(ENISA) and takes place every two years. These exer-
cises include both public and private institutions and
participants from all 28 EU Member States and two
European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The usual
high-level strategic goals of this exercises are testing
EU-level cooperation processes and training EU- and
national-level capabilities (ENISA, 2018).
The largest national cyber exercise conducted in
the US is organised by the US Department of Home-
land Security (DHS). In Cyber Storm VI (US Depart-
ment of Homeland Security, 2020) more than 1200
experts from both the private and the public sector
from the US and abroad participated in order to evalu-
ate and improve Nation’s cyber security response ca-
pabilities and to strengthen relationships between the
Federal Government and its partners (US Department
of Homeland Security, 2020).
Unlike the two previous exercises, Locked Shields
(The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of
Excellence, 2021) is an annual full-scale exercise,
which is organised by NATO’s Cooperative Cyber
Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE). A differ-
ence to other exercises is, that the exercise did not
only focus on national IT systems and critical in-
frastructure, but also included military systems from
nearly 30 nations. In Locked Shields exercises all as-
pects of cyber attacks are in real-time simulated (i.e
decision-making, legal, communication) (The NATO
Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence,
Panoptes (Dimitris Gritzalis, Spyros Papageor-
giou, 2016) is a Greek National Cyber Defence Exer-
cise organized annually since 2010 by the Cyber De-
fence Directorate of the HNDGS. This exercise is a
mostly offline Cyber Defense Exercise (CDX) (Dim-
itris Gritzalis, Spyros Papageorgiou, 2016), so that cy-
ber attacks are not simulated in a real-time. More than
200 participants from different sectors gain an oppor-
tunity to evaluate their own capabilities on various
scenarios (i.e. Incident Handling, Digital Forensics,
Information Sharing, Following policies and proce-
dures etc.).
Cyber Atlantic (ENISA, 2011) is the joint EU-
US table top Cyber execise organized by ENISA and
DHS in 2011. An overall objective was to explore
and identify potential improvements in communica-
tion and collaboration between EU Member states
and US during cyber crisis management activities
(ENISA, 2011).
In this section, we introduce our approach to teach
students planning, conducting and evaluating tabletop
cyber exercises in university courses. Related litera-
ture presented in Section 2, especially the guidelines
(ENISA, 2009), (FEMA, 2020), (Kick, 2015) have in-
fluenced the design and conception of the herein pre-
sented approach.
In order to set the scope and define the learning
objectives we made use of the Bloom’s taxonomy
(Bloom, 1956). In the following, the main learning
objectives are outlines:
The students understand current threats and are
able to model threats.
The students are able to derive exercise objectives
from an exercise task and create suitable high-
level scenario.
The students decide on roles and responsibilities
within the project according to the strengths and
weaknesses of the planning team members.
The students are able to refine the high-level sce-
nario into a master scenario event list (MSEL) and
the according injects.
The students are able to manage and run a cyber
The students can select evaluation criteria and ap-
ply them to come up with recommendations and
In order to achieve the main objectives, the lec-
ture follows a five-step process (i.e. Knowledge trans-
fer, Group formation, Planning, Conducting, Evalua-
tion)(Hellwig, 2016) depicted in Figure 1.
3.1 Knowledge Transfer
The first part of the lecture is dedicated to the knowl-
edge transfer of cyber exercise fundamentals. In this
ICISSP 2022 - 8th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
Figure 1: Cyber exercises procedure for courses in HEI.
part the theory of cyber exercises in general and ta-
ble top exercises in particular are presented. The stu-
dents learn about current exercise frameworks and
best practices in the area, the anatomy of cyber at-
tacks ATT&CK (MITRE, 2021), Cyber Kill Chain
(LogSign, 2020), Diamond Model of intrusion (Calta-
girone et al., 2013), current threat landscape (ENISA,
2020) and techniques for developing scenarios like
Twitter account BadThingsDaily (Hafner, ), CWE
(Mitre, 2021) and others.
As the level of knowledge in this area often varies
amongst the students, inverted classroom settings
showed good results. Providing the students with ap-
propriated sources and guiding questions enables stu-
dents to learn on their own pace and to dive into the
3.2 Group Formation
Within the next section of the lecture student teams
are formed. As planning and running a suitable exer-
cise is a challenging task, it is important the team size
is not too small (i.e. 8-12 members).
After the teams are established, they have to come
up with a strategy how to assign roles and responsi-
bilities. Past courses demonstrated that an effective
way to allocate roles and responsibilities often starts
by capturing the strengths of each team member, fol-
lowed by reflecting which roles (i.e. team leader,
facilitator, observer/evaluator, counter-player) require
certain strengths in order to have a good exercise team
3.3 Planning
The planning phase is the most critical part of the
lecture. Planning errors can lead to severe problems
while conducting the exercise. Therefore, students
have to be closely coached during this phase. This
planning phase consists of two parts.
In a first part students are asked to set the objec-
tives for the exercises and to derive the skills they
want to train and rehearse during the exercise. To
define goals, objectives and capabilities, students of-
ten use the capability target method from HSEEP
Framework (FEMA, 2020) and the SMART Method-
ology of goal setting (Specific, Measurable, Achiev-
able, Relevant, Time-Bound). After definition of the
objectives, the students get the assignment to identify
a suitable and realistic high-level scenario to achieve
the objectives.
A high-level scenario, as a combination of daily
business and cyber attacks, provides stakeholders
with an initial idea and intention of the exercise. At
the end of the first part, students have developed rough
plan that contains the general set-up of the cyber ex-
ercise, its goals and objectives, potential participants,
roles and responsibilities of the planning team and the
high-level scenario.
Succeeding in the second part of the planning
phase, a high-level storyboard is developed to set the
frame for the exercise. To come up with a suitable
storyboard, it has to be defined what happens in each
phase of the scenario. The transition from one phase
to the next is characterized by time jump (e.g. phase
1: worming up events to learn the roles, phase 2: in-
cident identification and containment, phase 3: erad-
ication and recovery). The concept of phases plays
Cyber Exercises in Computer Science Education
Figure 2: Setting of Cyber Exercise.
an important role in tabletop exercises as they help to
synchronize the scenario even if participants are re-
acting in a different way than expected.
As soon as the high level scenario is outlined
within the storyboard, the detailed planning can take
place. The goal is to put the participants in a realistic
situation in order to subsequently simulate a logical
sequence of events. Participants act individually in a
situation and can thus influence others with their be-
havior. For planning purposes, this means that there
must be at least two different approaches to reacting
to each situation in the exercise. However, it is nec-
essary to make a balance between the path the plan-
ning group envisions and the flexibility the exercise
The scenario must be managed throughout the im-
plementation and adapted to the actions of the partic-
ipants. For this purpose, injects are created to con-
trol the exercise and may be the decisive factor in
whether an execution of exercise is successful. Typi-
cally, students create a template for injects and break
them down into three categories: scenario relevant in-
jects (i.e attacks, cyber incidents), media (i.e. press
statements), legal injects (i.e. law, regulations like
GDPR). A key document in the planning stage is the
Master Scenario Event List (MSEL), that provides an
overview (Inject ID, delivery method, target, title, de-
scription, assumptions and expected actions) of all in-
jects and ensures timely and organized execution of
In the next step of the planning phase it is nec-
essary to define communications rules with and be-
tween participants during the exercise (i.e. what com-
munications channels are allowed, and how does the
organisational (communication) structure looks like).
Moreover, game-rules are defined (e.g. allowed soft-
ware and hardware, team resources, penalties for any
violations during an exercise). Additionally, metrics
are defined to make the success of a (cyber) exercise
measurable. Usually, metrics correlate closely with
the goals of the exercise, as the effectiveness of the
exercise is critical for the achievement of the objec-
The last step in the planning phase is the definition
of the evaluation method. An evaluation method is to
be designed by each of the group in order to ensure
that all players of the exercise learn from the exer-
cise. Moreover, before conducting the exercise, stu-
dents perform some final preparations in order to test
the injects and ensure readiness to start the exercise.
3.4 Conduct
After a successful design of cyber table top exercise,
the preparation of the environment takes place. Typ-
ically this involves setting up the lecture rooms in
an adequate manner. For clarification, such a set up
could consist of the following steps:
Assign rooms for the different teams (e.g. recov-
ery team, crisis management team)
ICISSP 2022 - 8th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
Setup the rooms (e.g. table arrangement, flip
Test of technical equipment used during the exer-
cise (e.g. email addresses, projectors, phones)
After the setup is complete, a final test is carried
out by each group. This is also the last chance to
coach the students managing the exercise without in-
terfering the exercise. As soon as all final checks are
finished and the exercise environment is ready, the
students simulating the exercise participants are wel-
comed in a briefing by the students managing the ex-
The aim of the briefing is to explain the exercise
rules (e.g. allowed communication media), organi-
zational issues (e.g. assignment of roles, course of
the exercise, explanation on delivery and answering
of injects, exercise time, exercise end) and the starting
point of the scenario. In the course of the exercise, the
injects are delivered by the exercise team. Dynamic
injects support the exercise management team to ad-
just the difficulty depending on the performance of
the player. In this phase, the lecturers take the role of
an observer in order to capture the performance and
provide feedback to both teams following the exer-
cise. The main setting of conducting cyber exercise is
shown in Figure 2.
The end of exercise must be clearly announced by
the exercise leader and is usually achieved, if one of
the following states is reached:
exercise goals have been achieved: the ideal state
is that all essential goals are reached by players.
certain tasks have been completed: another option
to determine the end is when all relevant activities
have been performed by the exercise participants.
if it is not certain how to proceed with the exer-
cise: although it has turned out that this case is
unlikely to occur, every exercise team leader must
be prepared to end the exercise earlier than ex-
pected due to unforeseen events or reactions by
the players.
3.5 Evaluation
After the exercise is declared finished by the exercise
planning team, the evaluation begins. The evaluation
consists of the two parts hot wash up and after action
Immediate captured feedback is collected within a
so called hot wash up. The goal using this method is
to get the impressions, experiences and opinions right
after the exercise. Topics covered by the hot wash up
are amongst others: strength and weaknesses of the
exercise, performance of the players, achievement of
the exercise goals & objectives, lessons learned of all
The lecture ends for the students by handing in an
after action report, which contains the goal and ob-
jectives of the performed exercise, information about
the scenario and participants results and observation
during the exercise as well as feedback of the partici-
As the cyber exercise has been planned as physical
table top exercise, the concept had to be strongly
adapted to work in a remote setting during the Corona
restrictions. All physical components, which have
been normally used, had to be replaced by virtual
means. Figure 3 provides an overview on the tech-
nologies used in the various phases of the exercise
As Microsoft Teams was already well known by
the students, we decided to use this platform as foun-
dation for the course (i.e. for communication and col-
laboration). Every student group was assigned to an
individual team of up to 12 students (e.g. Team A,
Team B). Furthermore, teams have been created for
conducting the exercises (Exercise A-B). Instead of
different rooms, which have been used in physical ta-
ble top exercises during the exercise in the past, it was
decided to use private channels.
Since the scenario definition and planning process
mostly is creative process, we decided to use Mural
to facilitate collaboration. Mural enables visual col-
laboration similar to the work on a whiteboard or flip
chart and therefore was a good technological replace-
ment for mind mapping, brainstorming or working
with sticky notes in the classroom.
To provide a central master scenario event list and
store details about the various injects, we created a
Sharepoint list. This represented the Master Scenario
Event List and supported the students to coordinate
the delivery of injects as well as capturing the reac-
tion at a central place. For the evaluation, we decided
to perform a hot wash in Microsoft Teams and we pre-
pared a form on a website to capture the experience of
the students.
Instead of Microsoft Teams, at the University of
Vienna students used an open source conferencing
system BigBlueButton for planning and the Discord
Server for conducting exercise. Based on our experi-
ences, these tools are also a good alternative and have
appeared to be suitable for performing virtual cyber
Although the COVID edition of the exercise was
Cyber Exercises in Computer Science Education
Figure 3: Technologies used in the virtual edition.
challenging at the beginning, we could also identify
advantages in the collaboration. Students have not
been bound by time or place. A major challenge dur-
ing the exercise in the virtual edition was the coor-
dination of the exercise. For the improvement of the
overall coordination, we are currently developing an
application based on the captured requirements dur-
ing the exercise.
In the last 9 years, cyber exercises have been used at
St. P
olten University of Applied Sciences and Univer-
sity of Vienna for computer science and cyber secu-
rity students in various settings (i.e. weekly teaching,
block teaching). The results and experienced gained
during this period are promising. In the following, we
briefly provide the lessons learned and results of the
The interactive way to elaborate a cyber security
scenario and the development of a realistic cyber ex-
ercise motivates the students. The feedback of the
students also indicated that this way of game based
learning encourages students to further deepen their
cyber security knowledge.
During the pandemics the well established con-
cept had to be adapted to a remote teaching solution
twice. While in the first year there had been minor
issues (e.g. challenges in the technical transformation
of the exercises) when rapidly transforming the lec-
ture, in the second year the remote lecture was a big
The COVID-19 crisis and the various cyber incidents
in recent months have made us aware of the impor-
tance of functioning and secure IT systems. Cyber
security and resilience gains importance as business
processes and services increasingly depend on func-
tioning ICT systems. Thus, it is no big surprise that
security found its way into most modern computer
science curricula. Cyber exercises are an effective
way to create awareness of cyber security incidents
and empowers students to experience various scenar-
In this paper we introduced an approach for or-
ganising table-top cyber exercise in computer sci-
ence education. The approach consists of five steps:
Knowledge Transfer, Group Formation, Plan, Con-
duct, Evaluate. This approach can be used as tem-
plate for institutions or companies that want to orga-
nize table-top exercises for educational purposes.
The virtual planning and performance of cyber ex-
ercises for teaching purposes is still in its infancy.
First promising results have been achieved in the last
ICISSP 2022 - 8th International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
two years. However, the usage of a variety of tools
and media is still a problem to solve. We therefore
are working on a prototype, which combines the re-
quired capabilities in order to enhance the educational
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