What is role play in education

Role play exercises give students the opportunity to assume the role of a person or act out a given situation. These roles can be performed by individual students, in pairs, or in groups which can play out a more complex scenario. Role plays engage students in real-life situations or scenarios that can be “stressful, unfamiliar, complex, or controversial” which requires them to examine personal feelings toward others and their circumstances (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p.47).

Unlike simulations and games which often are planned, structured activities and can last over a long period of time, role play exercises “are usually short, spontaneous presentations” but also can be prearranged research assignments (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p.47).

Role-play is a technique that allows students to explore realistic situations by interacting with other people in a managed way in order to develop experience and trial different strategies in a supported environment. Depending on the intention of the activity, participants might be playing a role similar to their own (or their likely one in the future) or could play the opposite part of the conversation or interaction. Both options provide the possibility of significant learning, with the former allowing experience to be gained and the latter encouraging the student to develop an understanding of the situation from the ‘opposite’ point of view.

How it Works

Participants are given particular roles to play in a conversation or other interaction, such as an email exchange, typical of their discipline. They may be given specific instructions on how to act or what to say, as an aggressive client or patient in denial, for example, or required to act and react in their own way depending on the requirements of the exercise. The participants will then act out the scenario and afterwards there will be reflection and discussion about the interactions, such as alternative ways of dealing with the situation. The scenario can then be acted out again with changes based on the outcome of the reflection and discussion.

Possible Technologies to Support the Approach

Role-play is a very flexible teaching approach because it requires no special tools, technology or environments, for example student could work through a role-play exercise just as effectively in a lecture hall as in a seminar room. However, technology can provide significant advantages, and even new possibilities, for using the approach as a learning activity.

At the most simple level, technology such as voice recorders, video cameras and smartphones/tablets allow traditional face-to-face role-play exercises to be recorded and stored online for later reference, analysis and reflection, as in this example of negotiation skills from EduCon, Korea. This can allow an exercise to be revisited at a later date and re-evaluated based on subsequent learning and experience, which isn’t generally possible when the exercise has not been recorded. Other tools that can be used with this traditional style of role-play are an electronic voting system or Twitter, both of which would allow a group of students to observe the role-play and evaluate the situation and conversation as it develops, such as by voting on whether a character was too aggressive or submissive during a particular interaction. This information could be retained and, coupled with a recording, provide another resource for later analysis and reflection.

However, technology can be used to create role-play exercises beyond what is possible in a face-to-face session. Asynchronous technologies, such as online forums and discussion boards, Social Networks, Twitter, etc., allow role-play to take place over longer periods of time and in a more considered way. This means that role-play can take place outside of timetabled sessions and in situations where students are unable to physical meet at the same time. In this situation students would post their part of the conversation, wait until the other participant(s) have responded, and then post their own reply, and so on. This method allows participants to engage when they are able and gives them time to consider their responses, and while it may seem quite artificial compared to a face-to-face exercise, it can reflect situations such as email discussions quite closely.

Another advantage of using technology is that it can enable external participants to take a part in the role-play. Tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, Skype and Google+ Hangouts all provide an online space where live conversations, including video, can take place. This means that a person with experience or expertise in the area being role-played can take one of the parts, producing a much more realistic experience for the student. For example, a clinical psychologist, drawing upon their own experience to make the interaction realistic, could play the part of a patient with students taking the part of the psychologist, or a chartered engineer could play the role of a project manager while students play the role of the engineers during a meeting. All of these tools can be accessed freely over the internet and only require a microphone and speakers/headphones, meaning the technical barriers are quite low. The tools typically have recording facilities that would allow the interaction to be permanently captured. These tools are also useful for role-playing among students where they are all available at the same time but can’t physically meet, such as on distance learning courses or during placement periods.

Getting Started

If you are interested in trying out role-play there are a few practical questions that you should answer:

  • Where in the course/module would this approach work best?
  • Are there situations and interactions that students would benefit from being able to explore?
  • Would ‘live’ role-play be most appropriate or would it need to be staggered over a longer period of time?
  • Should the students take on all of the roles, will the tutor take a role, or can people with direct experience be involved, e.g. having a genuine client or patient play their own part?
  • How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited? What support would be needed?
  • Are the students (and other tutors) ready for this?

Having thought about these questions, you should have worked out whether role-play is an approach that makes sense in your context and have some ideas about how to introduce it. If you are still unsure, you could try a small exercise in a single session and see how the students respond.

Further Resources

Case studies from SHU:

The following links are to case studies showing how staff at SHU have used role-play ideas in their teaching:

  • Using online role-play to develop ICT skills – Claire Craig

Related ‘Teaching Nuggets’:

The following link provides further information on some activities and assessment outputs that can work well with role-play, especially for students who are part-time or not campus-based:

Other resources:

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Students working together

Role playing is a learning structure that allows students to immediately apply content as they are put in the role of a decision maker who must make a decision regarding a policy, resource allocation, or some other outcome. This technique is an excellent tool for engaging students and allowing them to interact with their peers as they try to complete the task assigned to them in their specific role. This work can be done in cooperative groups and/or students can maintain the persona of their role throughout the class period. Students are more engaged as they try to respond to the material from the perspective of their character.

Advantages of role playing

  • Students immediately apply content in a relevant, real world context.
  • Students take on a decision making persona that might let them diverge from the confines of their normal self-imposed limitations or boundaries.
  • Students can transcend and think beyond the confines of the classroom setting.
  • Students see the relevance of the content for handling real world situations.
  • The instructor and students receive immediate feedback with regard to student understanding of the content.
  • Students engage in higher order thinking and learn content in a deeper way.
  • Instructors can create useful scenarios when setting the parameters of the role play when real scenarios or contexts might not be readily available.
  • Typically students claim to remember their role in these scenarios and the ensuing discussion long after the semester ends.

Steps and tips for using role playing

  1. Offer a relevent scenario to students. This scenario should include the role the student must play, the informational details relevant for decision making in this role, and a task to complete based on the information. This information might be provided on the screen through power point or by using a handout. It is highly recommended that the instructions be provided in writing so it is clear to students what they must do and how?
  2. Give students five to ten minutes to complete the task. The instructor might have students do this alone or in small groups or follow the think-pair-share format in which students work individual and then discuss their results with their partner.
  3. Find a way to process student deliberations. The instructor might ask students to write their replies to submit or this might be a very good lead in to a larger class discussion where students can justify their differing outcomes or opposing views.

Challenges of the role playing technique

One of the biggest challenges of the role playing technique is to get all students to participate and be truly engaged. Instructors might want to consider ways of increasing the likelihood of strong student participation. The instructor might offer a participation grade somehow tied to a short product students produce from their perspective in their given role. It is a good idea to find ways to increase student awareness of the likelihood their group might being called upon to share their answer with the entire class if they are playing their roles in a group context. The instructor might also consider using some of the role playing tasks in questions on exams and make it clear to students that that is the case. The instructor could even tell them that they might have to answer a question from the perspective of any of the roles, not just the one they were assigned.

Specific examples of role playing

soccer team revenue for role playing 2

For example, in economics we teach that changes in revenue generated by a change in the price of a product are related the the price elasticity of demand for this product. Students are asked to imagine that they are members of a high school soccer team booster club. To make more money for the team, one parent has recommended an increase in ticket prices at the gate for games as a way to make more money. Another parent has suggested that the boosters would make more money if they actually cut ticket prices. While placed in the role of booster club member and parents of soccer players, students are asked to vote for either raising prices at games or lowering admission prices. After each student votes they are asked to convince their neighbor to vote the same way they voted. After a few minutes another vote is taken and then a fuller discussion takes place as students are asked to explain why they voted the way they did. The resulting discussion is usually a comprehensive list of reasons why attendance at high school soccer matches might be price-elastic or price-inelastic even though students might not yet be using those exact terms.

References, further reading, and sources of examples of role playing

See modules on Role-Playing Exercises and Context-Rich Problems (as many context-rich problems are structured as students taking on a role of some sort).

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