The development of immersive learning technologies in the form of virtual reality and advanced computer applications has meant that realistic creations of simulated environments are now possible. Such simulations have been used to great effect in training in the military, air force, and in medical training. But how realistic do problems need to be in education for effective learning to occur? Some authors and researchers argue that problems should be real, or that simulations should have ultra-realistic physical similarity to an actual context. This paper proposes that physical verisimilitude to real situations is of less importance in learning than ‘cognitive realism’, provided by immersing students in engaging and complex tasks. The paper presents a description of the theory and research that provide the foundations for this approach. Examples of courses employing cognitive, rather than physical, realism are presented together with the views of teachers, authors and instructional designers. Finally, the implications of this approach are discussed.